Report by the Chief Executive.
12.1 The Assistant Chief Executive introduced the report. He outlined that this is the start of scrutiny’s engagement in the budget setting process for 2022/23 and beyond. The State of the County report in July set out the context for the detailed financial planning during the rest of the year. The financial and policy position remains one of uncertainty and there have been a number of developments since July which will be covered in an RPPR Update Report which will be considered by Cabinet on 30 September 2021. There have also been a number of Government announcements which include:
12.2 The Committee should expect further policy changes to be made in the coming months and will be kept informed through reports to Cabinet and Full Council. The impact of any policy changes will be factored into the financial planning process.
12.3 The Committee discussed the report and a summary of the points raised is given below.
Local Council Tax Discount Schemes
12.4 The Committee asked for more details on the potential loss of income as a result of the proposed changes to the Local Council Tax Discount Schemes by Lewes and Rother District Councils, and whether this would mean a reduction in the services East Sussex County Council (ESCC) will be able to provide.
12.5 It was clarified that a report on ESCC’s response to the consultation by the two billing authorities is being considered by the Lead Member for Resources on 1 October 2021. It is estimated that if the Lewes District Council proposals are implemented it will result in a loss of income to ESCC of around £800,000. It is thought the proposals by Rother District Council will have a less significant impact, but they have not been quantified. The Lead Member report will set out what this might mean in terms of reduced service provision, and any impact on services will be dealt with through the RPPR process.
Capital Programme - Street Lighting
12.6 Under the capital programme there are plans to replace the remaining sodium street lights with energy efficient LED (Light Emitting Diode) street lighting. The Committee asked if the impact of LED lighting on dark skies and bat and insect populations had be considered. The Director of Communities, Economy and Transport responded that although the Council did not have a dark skies strategy, the approach taken to street lighting is consistent with this type of policy. The department has sought to minimise the amount of time street lighting is on where this is consistent with community safety and road safety considerations. If the Committee wishes to undertake a specific piece of work on the impact of LED lighting, this is something that could be added to the Committee’s future work programme.
Measuring and Comparing Carbon Reduction costs
12.7 When thinking about quantify savings against costs, the Committee commented that it would be helpful to develop a metric to measure the amount CO2 emissions reduction for every pound spent, to help ensure the Council invests in the climate change projects that will deliver the largest CO2 saving. This will enable the cost of carbon reductions to be compared across the organisation and the Council’s range services and activities.
12.8 Officers commented that at the moment the Government’s Green Book (which is HM Treasury guidance on how to appraise and evaluate policies, projects and programmes) is unclear on how local authorities should include carbon reduction considerations in their value for money decisions on investments. The de-carbonisation agenda will require significant investment, so how the investment appraisal process is amended to take into account carbon reductions will need to be examined. Work is being undertaken with the Council’s supply chain, such as the Highways maintenance contract re-procurement, where contractors are being asked to establish a carbon emissions baseline in the first year of the contract and to outline how they will make changes to become net zero together with the associated costs.
12.9 The Committee commented that the Council may be able to identify the cost of de-carbonising in areas such as highways, but it may find that it is possible to save more carbon for the same amount of money in other areas of the Council’s operation. The Director of Communities, Economy and Transport outlined that it is part of the work of the Climate Team to work across the organisation to understand where it is possible to get the most carbon reduction for the money available. Some elements are easier to tackle such as changes to vehicle fleets and the buildings estate, but there will be areas that are tougher to decarbonise such as the use of materials like concrete and tarmac. It is likely that there will be some Government announcements on de-carbonisation priorities ahead of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference later in the year.
12.10 The Committee discussed the planned savings and increase in fees or income contained in the Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP).
12.11 Unsecured Debt. The Committee commented on the increase in the level of unsecured debt over 5 months old and the performance target set out the Business Services Portfolio Plan. The Committee asked if it would be possible to provide a breakdown of the debt, the steps the Council is taking to recover the debt, and the percentage of the debt that is written off. It was clarified that the debt is often associated with Adult Social Care costs and that any write off of debt above £10,000 is submitted in a report to the Lead Member for Resources and Climate Change for approval. Officers confirmed they can provide further details to the Committee.
12.12 New Skills for Carbon Zero Economy. The Committee discussed the establishment of a ‘carbon zero’ task group within the Employability and Skill Strategy to explore current and future employment opportunities and skills needs in the local economy, for areas such as the conservation of older buildings to make them more energy efficient (Communities, Economy and Transport Portfolio Plan). The Director of Communities, Economy and Transport commented that the Careers East Sussex task group is exploring the workforce development needs of the local economy. Skills East Sussex are looking at the skills needed for a net carbon zero economy (e.g. engineers, planners, building conservation and other skills). The ESCC Property Team has undertaken work to ensure the Council’s buildings are as energy efficient as possible, including older buildings such as Southover Grange in Lewes and Hastings Library.
Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP)
12.13 The Committee commented that there is a significant difference in the forecast annual budget deficit between the three years of the current MTFP. The Assistant Chief Executive clarified that there are no new savings planned for the next financial year, but there remain challenges for future years funding. As more information becomes available, the forecasts for future financial years will be revised and the Committee will be kept informed of these.
12.14 The Committee discussed establishing an RPPR scrutiny review board to comment on the emerging Portfolio Plans and MTFP. The Committee agreed to establish an RPPR Board comprised of all Place Scrutiny Committee members who wished to attend, and to invite the Chair of the People Scrutiny Committee to attend the Board meeting which will be held during December 2021.
12.15 The Committee RESOLVED to:
1) Explore further the impact of planned savings on the Trading Standards Service and Library Service;
2) Request further information on the level of unsecured debt over 5 months old; and
3) Establish an RPPR scrutiny review board to consider the developing Portfolio Plans and Medium Term Financial Plan and to submit Scrutiny’s final comments on them to Cabinet in January 2022.