Draft budget proposes to protect services and ensure long-term financial resilience

Braintree District Council’s budget proposals for 2024/2025 have been published, setting out its plan to protect essential services, deliver priorities whilst ensuring long-term financial resilience.

The council has a strong track record of sound financial management, making £10m savings and extra income over the past 10 years. Whilst the council is able to set a balanced budget for 2024-2025, a budget gap increasing up to £2.3m per annum is projected by 2027-28. Doing nothing to deal with the budget shortfall would mean having to use nearly £6m of balances to be able to set a legal budget. A volatile and uncertain world with continuing inflationary pressures and increased demand for council services means the financial pressures will only grow.

Without knowing what local government funding will be from central government beyond 2024/25 makes it extremely difficult for the council to plan with any degree of certainty. This means like most other councils, it must continue to look for savings and confront difficult decisions.

Last year the council announced plans to introduce a charge for garden waste collections starting from March 2024, which has generated just under £1million so far with over 50% of eligible households subscribing for the first year, playing a significant role in closing the 2024/2025 budget gap.

To meet future budget pressures, a ‘Fit for the Future’ transformation programme is underway looking at transforming how the council works, how it can use resources more effectively, working with partners and closely scrutinising how it uses assets and resources to build sustainable public services for the future. These aims and objectives were supported by residents when asked as part of the council’s recent Corporate Strategy consultation. 

Encouraging and supporting more housing means the council has benefited from significant levels of additional money through the New Homes Bonus which it is set to receive again this year. This money will be set aside to drive forward the council’s ‘Fit for the Future programme’ and to provide financial resilience to help manage some of the significant risks facing the council. Business growth across the district also continues to help fund services through extra business rate income.

Partnership working continues with North Essex Councils and the North Essex Economic Board who continue to work together to align services and share capacity and capabilities.

With around 60% of the council’s net budget being funded from council tax, the council is proposing an increase in their share of council tax to £200.07, an extra 11p per week based on a Band D property. Despite this increase, Braintree District Council continues to remain one of the lowest Council tax rates in Essex and below the national average of shire districts.

The council will continue to support low-income households who may struggle to pay council tax, with the recently approved Council Tax Support Scheme. An extra £50,000 has been set aside to be allocated through an Exceptional Hardship Fund. 

The council is proposing to continue investing in essential services and priorities, including affordable housing, excellent waste service delivery, play area improvements and supporting the district to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 as part of its climate change objectives. This is on top of existing projects that include funding for a Maltings Lane Community Centre, town centre improvements in Halstead and Witham, funding to Halstead voluntary, faith and community groups and skatepark refurbishments.

In last year’s budget the council committed to spend £1m over two years on delivering cost of living support, with funding provided to Braintree Area Foodbank for a new distribution centre, delivery service and outreach worker. Funding was also provided to Sport for Confidence to support their work with vulnerable adults to attend and enjoy leisure and sport activities.

It is continuing the Councillor Community Grant scheme with £1,250 allocated to each councillor to use to support community projects. During 2022-23, the scheme helped fund 86 community projects totalling £80,735 across the district. Funding for the Street Scene Partnership is to be retained in 2024/25, which is paid to parish councils to support them in keeping their local areas looking clean, tidy and well maintained.

Cllr Graham Butland, Leader of Braintree District Council, said: “It’s no secret how tough it has been for local government finances over recent years and councils like ours have done well to manage this given the national uncertainty over financial resources. We welcome the recent announcement from government of extra funding for councils and for Braintree we anticipate some increase in our government funding. This money will, however, only be one-off and will not solve our future budget gap. We will need to wait for the final funding settlement, expected in early February, before we can really say what this means for our budget.

“Whilst we are in a better position than most, unfortunately, we are still not immune to financial pressures and the difficult choices we’ll have to make. We will do all we can to keep protect the essential services for our residents and businesses, supporting those who need our help whilst ensuring that the council takes the steps necessary to ensure we can balance our budgets, maintain our ambition, and perform well, so that we remain fit for the future.”

Cllr Kevin Bowers, Cabinet Member for Resources and Performance at Braintree District Council, said: “Our strong financial management and work to find savings and efficiencies over many years means we are not having to make huge cuts this year or introduce significant additional charges for non-statutory services like other councils, but there are still difficult decisions ahead.

“We are of course always reluctant to increase council tax, but this is essential to help protect statutory services, ensure that unavoidable cost pressures can be met this year and to support our longer-term financial stability.

“Work is underway to address our future funding gap over the next four years through our transformation programme to look at the challenges we face – it’s not about fixing something that is broken but building on the successes we’ve had so far and to change and adapt to support the delivery of services in future years.”

The 2024/25 budget proposals will be presented at the council’s Corporate Scrutiny Committee on 31 January, Cabinet on 5 February and at its Full Council meeting for final approval on 19 February. These can be watched live on the council’s YouTube channel.

Published: 26th January 2024