After one of the toughest spending reviews in years, members of the Cabinet welcomed the latest draft budget report for 2022/23 at their last meeting before Christmas.
With income down due to the pandemic, and inflationary pressures expected to push up costs next year, initial projections to Cabinet in October had predicted a £1.5m gap between expenditure and income. Councillors were tasked to work with officers to come up with a range of measures to reduce costs and increase income.
The draft budget will now go to the Stronger Council Select Committee for further scrutiny, before returning to Cabinet and Full Council in February.
Council Leader Chris Whitbread thanked Finance Portfolio Holder John Philip and his finance team for closing the funding gap to produce a balanced budget in such exceptional circumstances.
Significant savings have been achieved including reductions in office costs as the Council completed the refit of the Civic Offices and closed other offices in Hemnall Street and the Epping Depot.
The Council’s property portfolio including Epping Forest Shopping Park, industrial estates and retail units continue to provide healthy income as the post-COVID economy recovers. Further income is due to come on stream following the letting of the top floor of the Civic Offices to a private tenant.
Leisure centres and airfield
A better than expected recovery in attendance at the district’s leisure centres has reduced the predicted post-pandemic losses. North Weald Airfield continues to generate income from diverse activities including distribution, aviation and the Saturday Market.
Local business support
Council Tax collection rates are better than expected. High street vacancy rates are low indicating economic confidence and support to local business during the pandemic has been successful.
Pay and display car parks
Pay and display car park income is still below pre-pandemic levels. Usage is expected to increase as the High Street economy continues to recover, but the draft budget also includes an increase in parking tariffs for the first time in 5 years.
Planning application fees
Fees from planning applications are expected to increase as the construction industry also recovers and the Local Plan nears adoption.
Council Tax increase
There are still several unknowns including the details of the government’s financial settlement. However, Government forecasts expect councils to factor in Council Tax increases and Epping Forest District Council will be no exception.
At this stage the budget includes a £5 (average Band D property) increase in the annual cost of the District Council Tax element, only the second increase in 10 years.
The average council house rent is budgeted to increase by £4.12 per week.
Continuing to invest
The draft 5-year capital programme demonstrates the Council’s continued commitment to district-wide investment. General fund investment of £107 million will continue to develop new long-term income streams from commercial property to homes for sale or rent. Separately, the £185 million Housing Revenue Account capital programme will continue to improve and upgrade existing council housing and build new council housing for rent.
The benefits of flexible working are being reaped and the Council will continue to invest in ICT infrastructure. There are also plans to upgrade the Council Chamber hybrid meeting systems allowing staff and councillors to meet remotely.
A second vehicle and 2 additional apprentices for the Highway Ranger service are also included in the draft budget.
Better position than many other councils
In recognising the challenges of producing a balanced budget in such challenging circumstances, Finance Portfolio Holder John Philip said:
Although we are at an early stage, when we consider the challenges of COVID and inflationary pressures pushing up costs, we really are in a better position than many other councils. There is still work to be done, but much of our strength comes from the solid groundwork laid down at an early stage and the transparent process involving staff and councillors across the organisation.
Council Leader Chris Whitbread added:
We have done a great deal to absorb costs, maintain services and protect residents. I am sorry that after so many years of Council Tax freezes and some of the lowest parking charges in Essex, it looks as though we will need to increase these and some other charges.
If there was any way we could avoid it, we would. I look forward to the review by the Stronger Council Select Committee and any further recommendations we might receive to refine and improve the budget between now and Full Council on 24 February 2022.
Final budget proposals will be recommended to Full Council by Cabinet on 7 February 2022 based on a range of factors, including feedback from the Stronger Council Select Committee on 18 January 2022.
Keep up to date
Keep in touch with our latest news, service updates and reports.