Council proposes investments in greener and fairer priorities and plans to meet future funding challenges

Budget proposals for 2022/23 at Oxfordshire County Council include investments in making the county greener and fairer but also careful plans to meet current and future financial challenges.

Challenges include uncertainty over government funding for all local authorities, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 that continues to place pressures on the county council’s day to day services and affect its income streams, alongside a growing and ageing population, which puts more pressure on budgets and services. Particular pressures, with predicted future funding shortfalls, are being felt within social care for both adults and children.

The budget proposals focus on placing funding where it is most needed and investing in services that will have a positive long-term impact for local communities.

Councillor Liz Leffman, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said: “Following the local elections in May 2021, the Oxfordshire Fair Deal Alliance formed to lead the county council. Our vision is to lead positive change to make Oxfordshire a greener, fairer county. We have developed nine priorities to deliver this aim. These include putting action to address the climate emergency at the heart of our work, tackling inequalities and supporting carers and the social care system. We have looked for ways to support these priorities in this, our first budget.

“We are committed to the responsible management of the council’s finances. To reach our goal of a balanced budget for 2022/23, we are planning ahead carefully to meet current and future financial challenges. We are also working on identifying savings across the council to enable us to invest in our priorities and meet our demand pressures.

“Challenges include uncertainty over government funding, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and an ageing and growing population, which puts more pressure on budgets and services.

“The government has announced some new grant funding for local government, which is welcome news and has the potential to allow us to invest in key priority areas. This includes £8 million of grant funding for pressures related to COVID-19. However, the detail of what funding we will receive remains unclear. Given the level of remaining uncertainties, including around COVID-19, we will continue to take a cautious and measured approach towards managing our budgets to deliver for residents today and in the future.”

Councillor Calum Miller, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Finance explained: In total, we have identified we need £21 million of new funding for 2022/23 to meet inflationary and demographic pressures, additional demand and to fund priority investments.

“We want funding to go where it is most needed and invest in services that will have a positive long-term impact for our local communities. To do that we plan to make £13m of new savings in 2022/23 focusing on making services more efficient while protecting the frontline.

“Social care for adults and children is an area where we are experiencing additional demands and financial challenges as a result. We are predicting significant funding shortfalls in the coming years. Without funding to meet these shortfalls from the government, council tax will have to rise to meet these costs.

“In the autumn spending review, the government encouraged councils to raise council tax by an additional one per cent to help pay for adult social care services. Last year, the council had already budgeted for a 3.99 per cent increase to council tax in 2022/23. We know increasing council tax by 4.99 per cent overall will put additional strain on household finances at a very challenging time. However, without funding from government to meet the rising costs of providing adult social care, we are left with no choice but to raise these funds to make sure we can provide social care for some of our most vulnerable residents.”

Cllr Leffman added: “Protecting those in need will always be our priority. Budget pressures mean we will have to continue to find ways to save money while protecting frontline services – moving services online, where appropriate, and generating more income.

“We are proposing both investments in priority areas and savings, and consulting the public on what we know now. As we move through the winter, the situation may change as we get to know more detail about the financial support available from the government.

“In the meantime, we want to hear from residents, businesses and others on our proposals. This will help inform our decisions during the budget process.”

Key investments linked to priorities and to meet newly identified pressures

  • There is a proposal to newly invest £824,000 in 2022/23 into climate action and resilience measures.
    • The council plans to support community activity to cut carbon emissions, develop a renewable energy network and help the transition to electric vehicles (EVs), as well as increasing its capacity as the lead flood authority for Oxfordshire.
    • It plans to develop a countywide nature recovery strategy, develop a tree and woodland strategy and support the development of a new local nature partnership for Oxfordshire.
    • The council also proposes to invest in supporting the retrofitting of residential homes to improve energy efficiency and support the delivery of a zero-carbon route-map for the county.
    • A further element would be to work with partners to expand EV charging capacity across the county and sustain the benefits of Project Local Energy Oxfordshire (LEO). Project LEO is running energy trials in the county to help build a greener (zero carbon), more flexible and fairer electricity system.
  • A total of £4.4m extra is being invested in adult social care to meet inflationary costs, which are predicted to rise across the care sector in the UK. This will be raised using the additional proposed adult social care precept of 1 per cent.
  • £800,000 has been identified to reduce the contribution rate that those in receipt of disability benefits have to pay towards assessed care needs. This will allow recipients to keep a little more money each week to spend on well-being and household expenses.
  • A total of £1.2m extra is being invested in special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) with further investments leading to a total of £2.1m by 2026. An annual 10 - 12 per cent increase in demand for education health and care plans (EHCPs) and the number of approved plans which require an annual review has created a pressure across the service including case workers, educational psychologists and quality and advocacy support. Additional capacity is needed to meet expected standards. There is also an investment in commissioning SEND placements.
  • COVID-19 has led to more children being in care placements than previously expected and for longer periods of time. There has also been an unusually large increase in the price for a placement and this links to delays in courts and changes in individual circumstances. A total of £1.15m is proposed to meet this pressure rising to £1.45m by 2026. A further £174,000 is earmarked to support those 18 year-olds leaving the care system.

Other proposals

  • The council’s aims to make cycling, walking and public transport easier and more accessible to everyone and, as a result, reduce car journeys across the county. In turn this will contribute to net-zero targets and help tackle climate change. A total of £130,000 in extra traffic enforcement income is being included for 2022/23 - rising to £580,000 by 2026. The council is expected to be invited to put in a bid to central government in the spring to take on enforcement of moving traffic offences that are currently dealt with by the police. Cameras would be installed to enable enforcement and there would be fines issued to offenders. Councils already practice these enforcement powers in London and some parts of Wales. It is currently anticipated this new system would be in action in autumn 2022. All income would be spent on highway and transport related services.
  • The council wants to reduce congestion and pollution and increase the speed of public transport. One method of achieving this is by encouraging more people to use park and ride and avoid driving into Oxford city. There are no plans to increase charges at park and rides, however the council is planning increases on pay and display in the city. This change would come into effect on 1 April. Two traffic related changes are based on these objectives. This would lead to a total of £150,000 in income in 2022/23 and a further £150,000 in 2023/24 – totalling £300,000 overall. The council is also planning to install cameras to undertake enforcement on existing bus lanes. Offenders would be fined. All income would be spent on highway and transport related services.
  • A home to school transport review will take place to look at how money is spent including: optimising routes to reduce emissions and make savings and running services more efficiently and ensuring eligibility is tightly managed; adjusting the cost of the spare seat scheme to reflect the increasing cost of providing this service; reviewing areas of discretionary spend and adapting policies to bring Oxfordshire more in line with other parts of the country. A £1m saving will be made in 2022/23 against an overall budget of £25.7m. However, at the same time £1.3m is being added to the home to school transport budget linked to population increases – meaning the home to school transport budget will rise overall by £0.3m.

Council tax

The council is proposing a 4.99 per cent council tax rise (3 per cent of which is an adult social care precept and must be spent on adult social care). The county council’s share of council tax for a Band D property (the average council tax band) in 2021/22 was £1,573.11. A 4.99 per cent increase is equal to a £78.50 per year or £1.51 per week increase in council tax on a Band D property.

Have your say

People can have their say on the council’s budget proposals, including its proposed council tax level for 2022/23 and the Cabinet’s priorities between 2 December 2021 and 5 January 2022 by visiting letstalk.oxfordshire.gov.uk/budgetconsultation and completing the online survey.

The feedback from the budget consultation will be considered by the council’s Cabinet on 18 January 2022 and the council will decide and set its budget on 8 February 2022. Feedback will also help develop a new strategic plan for the council.