Agenda item

Budget and Council Tax setting 2024 to 2025 and Medium Term Financial Strategy 2024 to 2028 (Report number: COU/WS/24/003)

Report number: COU/WS/24/003


(Councillor Frank Stennett declared that he was the Chair of Newmarket Cricket Club and left the meeting when it moved into private session and did not take part in the debate on the exempt business cases. He returned to the meeting when back in public session.)


Council considered this report, which presented proposals for the budget and council tax setting in 2024 to 2025 and the Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) 2024 to 2028. 


Councillor Diane Hind, Portfolio Holder for Resources, drew relevant issues to the attention of the Council.  The budget had been created to invest in West Suffolk’s future, improve services and keep charges low.  It invested in a fair, thriving and sustainable future for West Suffolk and improved essential services, whilst meeting significant national and local financial challenges.  The budget would support and help drive the delivery of the authority’s ambitious strategic priorities.  Investment in these areas included:


·         Strengthening essential services such as improving grass cutting and grounds maintenance operation making tidier streets and better biodiversity.

·         Funding leisure improvements as well as protecting swimming pools from closing due to high utility costs, better equipment and investment in our leisure centres, play areas and open spaces.

·         Ways to bring more affordable homes to West Suffolk and reduce the risk of people becoming homeless.

·         Working alone and together with partners to improve and rent out property for businesses to create jobs and help our town centres as well as improve skills.

·         Funding commissioning work around Brandon and potential economic benefits on the A11, A1307 and A14 corridors.

·         Improving parking facilities across West Suffolk.

·         Supporting crucial groups and volunteers that are the backbone of society and provide vital support for local communities.

·         Topping up the Net Zero fund totalling now £11.75 million to support further investment in council assets, including the leisure portfolio and the authority’s highly successful solar for business scheme.

The Council would continue to invest in initiatives that generated income and wider benefits, such as Solar for Business.  In addition, £1 million would be made in savings or new local income over the next two years as part of the Council’s forthcoming service improvement and behaving commercially programmes.  This would be in addition to the £1 million already achieved in the current year’s budget to make the Council as efficient as possible.


West Suffolk Council was forecasting a two-year balanced budget despite an additional £5 million in pressures (around six per cent of the overall £78 million gross budget). This had been caused by increased inflation, cost of living and higher demand for services, additional demands from Government and traditional reduced funding.


This year Government had given a settlement that did not meet the costs of running services and expected in their calculations that all councils put up Council Tax to the maximum amount available (2.99 per cent). On 6 February 2024, the Cabinet recommended to Council that the level of Band D council tax for 2024 to 2025 be set at £197.82, which represented a Band D weekly increase of 11 pence. Noting that 70 percent of West Suffolk residents were in bands A to C, these would actually see a lower increase. The Council Tax paid to West Suffolk Council was only around 11 percent of the total bill and covered under a fifth of the cost of services. The Council had also agreed to extend up to 100 percent discount on Council Tax to many low income and vulnerable residents, including those in work.


The 2023 to 2024 budget approved in February 2023, included support for the introduction of a long term empty homes premium after twelve months of a property becoming vacant and this 2024 to 2025 budget included proposals to implement additional powers given to local government to levy a second homes premium within the district from April 2025. These financial levers enabled local councils to use council tax to achieve behavioural changes linked to bringing empty properties and second homes back into general use within the locality.


The budget process had also given the opportunity to listen to residents, businesses and car park users by simplifying some parking charges and abolishing others. This was part of a common sense review of charges and tariffs for services the Council delivered to tailor them so they remained in line with their true costs, following high inflation and price rises but avoided blanket rises. Equally charges had been frozen in some areas, such as cost of market stalls, to help local traders and encourage markets and vitality of local town centres.


Members considered the report in detail, which included the following issues for securing a balanced budget for 2024 to 2025 and plans for the medium term from 2024 to 2028, together with corresponding detailed appendices:


Section 1:    Summary: as provided above. 

Section 2:    Context: which included reference to the Council’s robust financial planning and management enabling the Council to deliver both services and the strategic aims of West Suffolk. This was,despite previous reductions in national funding as well as the severe impact of COVID-19 and the cost of living crisis on finances, the Council could put forward a balanced budget for 2024 to 2025 and an indicative balanced budget for the following year 2025 to 2026. Details were also provided on the Council’s ‘Investing in our Growth Agenda’; innovation in service delivery; the ambition for the Council to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030; and the implications of ‘Simpler Recycling’.

Section 3:    Provisional local government finance settlement: which included reference to the Revenue Support Grant; Rural Services Delivery Grant; Services Grant; the future of New Homes Bonus; Funding Guarantee Grant; business rates estimate for 2024 to 2025; Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Relief and council tax referendum limits.

Section 4:    Council tax for 2024 to 2025: which included reference to the recently approved West Suffolk Local Council Tax Reduction Scheme 2024 to 2025; changes to the Long Term Empty Property Premium and Second Homes arrangements.

Section 5:    Setting the budget – 2024 to 2025 and across the medium term to 2027 to 2028:which included reference to inflation assumptions assumed in the MTFS; fees and charges (as approved by Cabinet on 6 February 2024); and delivering a sustainable future beyond 2024 to 2025.

Section 6:    Capital programme 2024 to 2028: which included reference to the planned capital expenditure over four years to 2027/2028; disposal of surplus assets; and estimated income from asset disposals 2024 to 2028

Section 7:    Minimum revenue provision (MRP)

Section 8:    General fund balance

Section 9:    Earmarked reserves

Section 10: Strategic priorities and MTFS reserve, which included details of the grant receipts put into this reserve from New Homes Bonus (including Funding Guarantee from 2023 to 2024)

Section 11: Adequacy of reserves

Section 12:  Calculation of the council tax


Councillor Hind commended the Finance Team, the Performance and Audit Scrutiny Committee, together with officers and Cabinet colleagues, for their work in being able to secure a balanced budget for 2024 to 2025 before moving approval of all six recommendations set out in the report. The motion was duly seconded by Councillor Cliff Waterman, who reserved his right to speak until the end of the debate.


A detailed debate ensued which included a number of comments, observations and questions, including:


a.       Exempt papers: to promote openness and transparency it was questioned whether it was absolutely necessary for the three business cases (exempt Attachment D, appendices 2d, 2e and 2f) to be exempt. These had not been published in the public domain due to their commercial sensitivity.  


b.       Budget pressures: whilst external factors, such as inflation were acknowledged for creating budgetary challenges, some budget pressures were considered to have been as a result of political decisions. Together with other examples, the £1 million Decarbonisation Initiatives Fund, which had initially allocated funds towards the upgrading of town and parish council-owned streetlights to LED was given, as well as referring to the proposed investment in industrial units rather than say, for example, leisure centres.  It was questioned whether these were the most appropriate use of monies in challenging times.


During her right of reply, Councillor Hind stated that the upgrading of street lighting was supporting town and parish councils to deliver both energy and cost efficiencies which accorded with the Council’s own strategic environmental resilience priority; and the Council remained committed to and was continuing to invest in growth as well as its leisure centres across the district.  


c.       Comments relating to the forecasted budget gaps for 2026/2027 and 2027/2028; the robustness of the exempt business cases; increases in capital expenditure and external borrowing; and the depletion of the Council’s reserves: these comments were acknowledged by Councillor Hind during her right of reply.


d.       Premium on second homes: whether it was appropriate to impose up to a 100 per cent Council Tax premium on second homes (furnished properties which are unoccupied or occupied periodically). Council was being asked to support the implementation of the second home premium with effect from April 2025, noting that a decision to revoke this determination could be made at any point up to 31 March 2025. Some members felt that this proposal would not release much-needed housing which appeared to be the aim of the premium.


          During her right of reply, Councillor Hind stated that the implementation of the Council Tax premium on Long Term Empty and Second Homes aimed to bring properties back into use to help relieve pressure on existing housing stock. She quoted that as at 1 February 2024, 2,548 were currently on the Housing Register in need of affordable housing to rent. 550 homes could be brought back into much needed use to support those on the Register and to help enable people to remain resident within their own locality. 


e.       Attachment G - ‘Net Zero Decarbonisation Fund – January 2024 Update’: Councillor Charlie Lynch made specific reference to the figures quoted under the fleet intervention at Table G1, namely that for an investment of £1,160,000 to upgrade the fleet to electric vehicles, this was currently projected to provide a net return figure of minus £155,000, and a carbon saving of 85 tonnes of CO2e, which he felt was disappointing. Following reference to alternative suggestions that may provide better carbon, public health and financial savings, he requested that the above be reanalysed to ensure the proposed investment in the electric vehicle fleet was good value for money and would achieve sufficient carbon savings and benefit to public health.


During her right of reply, Councillor Hind stated that a written response would be provided to the issue outlined above and in accordance with the Council Procedure Rules, this would be circulated to all members and published on the Council’s website.


In addition to the above, the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holders spoke in support of the budget, with particular reference given to how it would benefit the delivery of priorities, services, aims and ambitions within their own portfolios, where applicable.


In summary, the majority of members acknowledged that despite the significant financial challenges being faced, the Council had achieved a positive and robust budget that invested in West Suffolk’s future, improved services, moved forward with its ‘greener’ ambitions and kept charges low. Investments would continue to be made in essential services and initiatives that would drive the Council’s strategic priorities within a context of national financial challenges.


As it had previously been indicated that members wished to discuss the specific content of the exempt appendices, at this point, Councillor Cliff Waterman, Leader of the Council, proposed that the meeting move into private session.


The motion was duly seconded by Councillor Andrew Smith. The motion was put to the vote and with the vote being unanimous, it was




That the press and public be excluded during the consideration of the following items because it is likely, in view of the nature of the business to be transacted or the nature of the proceedings, that if members of the public were present during the items, there would be disclosure to them of exempt categories of information as prescribed in Part 1 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972, and indicated against each item and, in all circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.


Discussion was held on the following three business cases detailed in the exempt appendices:


·         A £1.2 million investment in the commercial unit at Anglian Lane site in Bury St Edmunds to regenerate the asset whilst increasing its rental income – exempt business case at Appendix 2d.

·         A £1.1 million investment in the commercial unit at 2 Hollands Road in Haverhill regenerate the asset whilst increasing its rental income – exempt business case at Appendix 2e.

·         A £2.0 million investment towards a total £4.0 million capital project delivering a new sport and leisure provision at the St Felix site in Newmarket – exempt business case at Appendix 2f.


During the discussion in private session on the Anglian Lane business case, Councillor Diane Hind confirmed to Councillor Sarah Broughton that there was a presentational error in the exempt appendix. Subsequent to the meeting, written clarification was given to Councillor Broughton in accordance with the Council Procedure Rules, this would be circulated to all members and placed on the Council’s intranet for restricted access only.


Following due consideration, the meeting returned to public session, where Councillor Cliff Waterman, Leader of the Council spoke at seconder of the motion. He felt extremely proud of the budget and had no hesitation commending its approval by Council.


The motion was then put to the statutorily required recorded vote.  With 58 members present, the votes recorded were 33 votes for the motion, 3 against, and 22 abstentions; the names of those members voting for, against and abstaining, being recorded as follows:


For the motion:


Councillors Alecock, Armitage, Bradshaw, Brown, Dawn Dicker, Roger Dicker, Firman, Halpin, Higgins, Hind, Jarvis, Kelly, Lindberg, London, Luccarini, Lukaniuk, Miller-Jones, Neal, O’Driscoll, Perry, Savage, Sayer, Shipp, David Smith, Liz Smith, Taylor, Thorndyke, Wakelam, Waldron, Waterman, Wijenayaka, Wittam and Yarrow.


Against the motion:


Councillors Mager, Speed and Stennett.




Councillors Broughton, Bull, Chester, Chung, Clarke, Drummond, Glossop, Hood, Hopfensperger, Houlder, Lynch, Marks, Mason, Mildmay-White, Pugh, Rayner, Richardson, Rout, Rushbrook, Andrew Smith, Soons and Stamp.


It was therefore





1.       having taken into account the information received by Cabinet on 6 February 2024 (Report number: CAB/WS/24/010) including the report by the Director (Resources and Property) (Section 151 Officer) set out in Attachment C, together with the up to date information and advice contained in Report number: COU/WS/24/003, the level of West Suffolk Council’s band D Council Tax for 2024 to 2025 be set at £197.82 (the level of Council Tax beyond 2024 to 2025 will be set in accordance with the annual budget process for the relevant financial year).


2.       Subject to recommendation 1 above, the following formal council tax resolutions be adopted:


a.       the revenue and capital budget for 2024 to 2028, plus 2023 to 2024 capital projects that subsequently require to be carried forward at the year end, attached at Attachment A to Report number: COU/WS/24/003, and as detailed in Attachment D (Appendices 1 to 6), Attachment E and Attachment F, be approved.


b.       A general fund balance of £5 million be agreed to be maintained, as detailed in paragraph 8.2.


c.       The statutory calculations under Section 30 to 36 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, attached at Attachment I, be noted.


d.       The Suffolk County Council and Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Suffolk precepts issued to West Suffolk Council, in accordance with Section 40 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 and outlined at paragraphs 12.6 and 12.7 below, be noted.


e.       In accordance with Section 30(2) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, the amounts shown in Schedule D of Attachment H be agreed as the amount of Council Tax for the year 2024 to 2025 for each of the categories of dwellings shown.


3.       The Director (Resources and Property), in consultation with the Portfolio Holder for Resources, be authorised to vire funds between existing Earmarked Reserves (as set out at Attachment D, Appendix 3) as deemed appropriate throughout the medium term financial planning period.


4.       Approval be given to delegate authority to the Director (Resources and Property) in consultation with the Portfolio Holder for Resources to formulate and implement in full, Government grant, discount or relief schemes (examples include but not limited to those set out in paragraphs 3.14 to 3.16 and 4.7 to 4.10), so long as they are as a minimum, revenue cost neutral to the council.


5.       Approval be given to the change to the Second Home Premium set out in paragraphs 4.7 to 4.10.


6.       Approval be given to the Flexible Use of Capital Receipts Strategy (as set out in Attachment F).


At this point at 9.20pm, it was proposed by Councillor Cliff Waterman, seconded by Councillor Carol Bull, that the meeting be adjourned for a short comfort break. The motion was put to the vote and with the vote being unanimous, it was




That the Council meeting be adjourned immediately for a short comfort break.


The meeting resumed at 9.27pm.


(During the comfort break, Councillors Sarah Broughton, Andy Drummond, Paul Firman, Susan Glossop, Rachel Hood, Ian Houlder, Sara Mildmay-White, Sarah Pugh, Richard Rout, Karen Soons, Andrew Speed and Frank Stennett left the meeting and did not return.)

Supporting documents: