Careful and measured approach as council seeks to protect frontline while dealing with COVID shortfall

Oxfordshire County Council is proposing a careful and measured approach in response to budget challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and is seeking to minimise the impact on frontline services, protect the most vulnerable and support the county’s recovery.

The council’s Cabinet will be asked to approve a series of measures to meet the currently projected shortfall for 2020/21 at a special meeting on Tuesday, August 18.

Councils all over England are experiencing COVID-related budget issues and, like the county council, many are revisiting the budget they set in February for the 2020/21 financial year. There is currently a projected £16m shortfall at the county council as a result of loss of income and extra expenditure stemming from the pandemic.

Protecting frontline services

The council is proposing to take the opportunity to take a fresh look at services and find new ways of delivering them rather than following the route of cutting services .

COVID has presented opportunities for adopting new ways of working and making greater use of digital technology. For example, 3,500 members of council staff who normally work in the office are continuing to work remotely from home, which has resulted in a saving in utility costs across council buildings.

Recommendations to the Cabinet focus include not filling vacant posts, delaying the purchase of some new equipment and simplifying how the council delivers new programmes. 

Oxfordshire County Council is currently reporting additional costs and lost income of approximately £51 million as a result of coronavirus. The council has received almost £31 million to date in grant funding from the Government. The Government’s new Income Guarantee Scheme for sales, fees and charges is expected to provide around a further £4m during the year. This means the overall shortfall this financial year is currently forecast to be £16 million. The cabinet will be asked to approve around £15m of savings for 2020/21 to cover the majority of this shortfall – acknowledging that the overall situation could change for better for worse as the financial year progresses further .

Councils have played a critical role

Councillor David Bartholomew, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Finance, said: “We are proposing to take a careful and measured approach and are seeking to protect frontline services as much as we can.

“Throughout the pandemic, the council has gone the extra mile to support local residents on a daily basis. We have made rapid adjustments to meet new demands - such as establishing dedicated customer contact teams to support the most vulnerable – and have stepped up work in critical frontline services, such as ensuring schools are kept open for vulnerable children and those of key workers.

“We have done this without question in order to support and protect the most vulnerable in our communities. But, like other local authorities across England, we now find ourselves in a position whereby we are being asked to cover a significant proportion of the cost for this. In taking these steps to balance our books, we are doing our utmost to minimise the impact on our frontline services and to protect those who so badly need our support.

While ensuring we meet our legal duty to balance our budget, we are continuing to work with councils across England to call on the Government for further funding for councils at this critical time.”

Future years and further challenges

Councillor Ian Hudspeth, the leader of the county council added: “Further financial pressures will follow as we restart services in a COVID-compliant manner, such as operating home to school transport, with staggered school opening times and social distancing measures in place.

“The possibility of a second wave of the virus later this year, particularly if combined with a flu epidemic, would also place a huge strain on existing resources, especially if lockdown is required and services have to be stood down again.

“Moreover, there may well be significant costs in future years arising from COVID as a result of reduced business rates and council tax. When we get to Winter and need to set a budget for 2021/22 and beyond, it is likely to be extremely challenging.

“There is an ongoing debate about how local government services in Oxfordshire could be delivered differently in the future to protect ourselves better from financial challenges. The Government is producing a White Paper in the Autumn about local recovery and the shape of local government across England. It will be interesting to see what emerges from that, and Oxfordshire’s councils are already engaging with each other in anticipation of that White Paper.”

Measures being proposed to save £16m from the 2020/21 budget.

Measures being proposed to the August 18 cabinet include:

  • A potential £306,000 saving in utility bills. This is the result of many of the county council’s buildings being closed for several months due to COVD-19, and to anticipated increases in utility rates not materialising.
  • A saving of £400,000 is expected as a result of reduced spend on travel, printing, stationery, expenses and other areas.
  • In Adult Social Care, additional funding from the Hospital Discharge Scheme will save £1.3m. Additional funding from NHS England is expected to be made available nationally to support the on-going cost following discharges from hospital since 19 March 2020. This means council funding for care now being met by the Hospital Discharge Scheme (HDS) can be released on a temporary basis. Responsibility for on-going assessed care needs will revert to the council with assessed contributions from people towards the cost of their care once the HDS ends.
  • The total council contribution to the Better Care Fund pooled budget in 2020/21 is £102m. The Better Care Fund (BCF) is a programme spanning both the NHS and local government which seeks to join up health and care services so that people can manage their own health and wellbeing, and live independently in their communities for as long as possible. By increasing the focus on maximising use of residential and nursing beds available through existing contracts, minimising the length of any vacancies, and looking for creative ways to meet needs at lower cost while also helping service users be as independent as possible, it is anticipated that it may be possible to reduce spend by around 1% in the second half of 2020/21. This would save £500,000.
  • In Children’s Social Care a total of £903,000 will be saved due to a revised model of implementation for the new family safeguarding model of delivering care, which is being introduced during 2020/21. A delayed implementation from summer to autumn due to COVID-19 has meant lower running costs in this year; redesigning and reducing set-up costs; reducing the project team that is supporting the implementation. However, the council is maintaining its frontline investment in the new service so that it can still improve services for children and families.
  • The council allocated £200,000 in 2020/21 to carry out an assessment and redesign of youth services. COVID-19 has prevented the council from progressing this work as services for children in need of immediate help and protection had to be prioritised during the lockdown; while youth groups were not been operational in this period. However, the council has designed a proposal for the assessment that can take place this year, for which £25,000 is earmarked, and it will be looking for groups/organisations to bid to undertake this work. A saving of £175,000 will therefore be achieved.
  • Community Support Services have remained open throughout the coronavirus pandemic which has required the use of different approaches to support people to meet social distancing requirements. During the remainder of 2020/21, this has enabled the council to identify an alternative base for its community support service in Didcot which has merged with Wantage. Everybody who received a service at Didcot will still do so. This will save £75,000, but also offers the opportunity to explore alternative delivery models for Community Support Services in the future.
  • In highways and transport, £500,000 relating to various schemes will be charged to capital (project) budgets instead of from day to day spend in revenue budgets.
  • Extra money as a one-off was allocated for 2020/21 for additional vegetation clearance and sign cleaning. A total of £175,000 of additional 2020/21 allocation is being offered back as a potential saving. This does not affect the council’s normal level of service.
  • Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue propose to save £200,000 by delaying plans to replace older diesel vehicles with electric vehicles by one year. The ambition is to have a full fleet of electric cars for general and operational use. It will have no impact on service delivery, but will delay the reduction in emissions from the fleet.
  • Last year Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue changed how it worked, increasing the flexibility of the service to meet demand at different times of the day. This trial has allowed it to delay the delivery of one fire engine this year – leading to a 2020/21 saving proposal of £130,000. The service is confident it has the resilience to support this for an additional 12 months.
  • A review of roles in the council’s Road Agreements Team would contribute to a £230,000 saving if agreed. This is about using income the council receives in a different way. Income will be used to fund some junior posts instead of the council’s base budget. Part of the saving would also be met from a change to how the council supports its Lead Local Flood Authority work.

Full details of the budget proposals can be found here

A budget for 2021/22 and beyond will not be proposed until Winter and will not be set until February 2021. These proposals relate only to the current financial year.

The total net budget for Oxfordshire County Council in 2020/21, as set in February 2020, is £476m.