Bristol City Council is investing £1billion in major projects such as developing Temple Quarter and building new homes over the next five years — but admits that will have an impact on how much it can spend on “day-to-day services”.
And the authority’s budget papers for the next financial year contain a stark warning that spiralling costs in adult social care are “threatening to overwhelm the council’s ability to manage its finances”.
No new cuts are proposed in the 20/21 budget, to be considered by cabinet members on Tuesday (January 21).
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Spending on Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) children is being increased by more than £1.3m following a damning report by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission last month.
The cash will help fund the authority’s education transformation programme to address the inspectors’ findings that vulnerable pupils receive “disturbingly poor” care.
In the budget report to cabinet, finance officers say the council has earmarked £966m over the next five years for capital projects, which are long-term investments.
The money is separate from the authority’s general fund, which is by far the biggest chunk of the overall annual budget and pays for mainstream services, with a proposed increase of £17.4m for 2020/21 to £395.7m, a rise funded partly by a 3.99 per cent hike in council tax, which will raise £10m.
The report says the council’s capital programme up to 2024/25 is “ambitious”, with the money coming from external funding, capital receipts and borrowing.
“A significant proportion of this programme is aligned to large infrastructure investments that will support long-term regeneration across the city, such as new housing building and developing the Temple Quarter area,” it says.
“This is balanced against areas which will support improvements in ongoing council services such as investing in infrastructure to support delivery of social care and education services.
“High levels of capital investment means the council will incur a higher level of fixed annual costs for the foreseeable future and impacts upon revenue resources available to fund day-to-day services.”
The papers say the amount the council paid on adult social care soared from £138m in 2017/18 to a forecast £154.4m this year.
“These increasing costs are threatening to overwhelm the council’s ability to manage its finances and it is not clear whether public funding for adult social care will increase,” the report says.
Another area where the government has left local authorities in the dark is the way it will distribute money to each, with a review expected this year.
“That presents a significant risk to future funding,” the city council cabinet report says.
It also paints a grim picture of the dangers faced by vulnerable youngsters, adding: “The children’s social care service has experienced escalating levels of serious youth violence and extra-familial risk, including gang affiliation, criminal exploitation and abuse.
“This, alongside a growing child population and improved intelligence and awareness of serious violence and complex safeguarding demands, has presented challenges to the directorate in achieving a balanced budget.
“An earmarked reserve of £900,000 was allocated in 2019/20 to meet the rising demand attributed to serious youth violence should the additional pressure not be contained within the grant funding received.
“In recognition of the increasing trend, a further £1.5m has been earmarked from the one-off grant funding.”
Speaking of the extra cash for the urgent SEND action plan the council has been forced to develop, Labour’s cabinet member for education and skills Anna Keen said: “Like many other local authorities across England we are transforming a service which continues to see increasing demand while being critically underfunded by central government.
“Funding for SEND is a priority for us and we will continue to ask the government for fair and appropriate levels of funding that match our needs in Bristol.
“However, this is of immense importance and we must act now, so are looking to make the necessary adjustments in our budget to ensure we can fund the programme now and drive improvements for the future.”
Speaking of the overall budget, the report says: “The council’s proposed budget for 2020/21 establishes a solid and resilient financial base to meet the future challenges that could result from the uncertain financial, social, economic and environmental climate.”
Adam Postans is a local democracy reporter for Bristol
Main photo by Ellie Pipe