Chelmsford City Council has approved a budget for 2022-23. The plans from the Lib Dem-led Council aim to maintain essential services and protect vulnerable residents, as well as taking action on climate change, affordable homes and a more-connected city, as promised in the Council's "Our Chelmsford, Our Plan".
Lib Dem councillors voted in favour of the authority's spending plans for 2022-23 on Tuesday 22 January. The Conservatives voted against the plans but failed to come up with any proposals of their own to do anything differently.
Like people and businesses across the country, the day-to-day cash income to all local authorities continues to be hit hard by the financial impact of COVID-19 and high inflation.
Nevertheless, money for capital investment is available and the budget sets out how the council will invest in new projects while also maintaining essential services:
New investment will help address the housing crisis. Over £23 million is to be invested in additional affordable housing and temporary accommodation, providing hope to some of Chelmsford's most vulnerable community members.
The new budget will also prioritise the climate and ecological emergency. A £500k green fund will help the council to invest further in electric vehicles and reduce reliance on gas in heating systems.
The City Council will also upgrade facilities at Dovedale Sports Centre, the multi-use games area in Oaklands Park, the 3G pitch at Beaulieu and toilet blocks around the city, and convert the floodlights at the Athletics Centre to LED.
Investment in Chelmsford Theatres to mark the Civic's 60th anniversary will improve the experience for theatregoers and generate extra income to support local services. The City Council will continue its projects to support local businesses and invest in making council meetings more accessible online to residents.
The city council is responsible for many services essential to life in Chelmsford, including bin collections, parks, homelessness support, community safety and public health. Only 11% of local residents' council tax goes to these services (most goes to the county council with the remainder going to police and fire service) and the city council keeps only a tiny proportion of business rates. Income from leisure centres, car parks, theatres and events helps to keep the services going.
Under the proposed budget, all these services will continue, and some will increase. For example, sixteen schemes to improve community safety in the Bunny Walks area will continue to be implemented, thanks to a successful bid from the Lib-Dem led council and other agencies for Home Office funding.
To improve other community facilities, there will be over £10m of investments funded by developers, including projects to boost homelessness services, the new Beaulieu railway station and the work to bring Tindal Square back into use. Up to £4.4m has been committed to buy land to deliver tree-planting commitments.
The council's income, which was severely affected by Covid-19, has partially recovered, but inflation continues to push up costs hugely. Income is not back to 2019-20 levels and was knocked back by the Omicron variant. It is still forecast that some income will never fully recover, especially in the area of car parks.
General inflation is reflected in the budget by charges increasing by 3.2%, although inflation is now above 5% and is rising, while energy costs continue to increase by far more than this. Energy is predicted to cost the council an extra £1.1m in 2022/3. The cost of construction materials is also driving tender prices up as much as double.
The latest budget shows the total inflationary pressures at over £2 million.
Cllr Chris Davidson, Cabinet Member for Fairer Chelmsford, said, "Strong financial management has enabled us to propose a balanced budget. Councils are legally obliged to balance their books and sound finance is a top priority for us. Unlike many other local authorities, we fortunately do not risk bankruptcy or need bailing out, and our reserves are strong, which means that we can continue to deliver the essential services our residents rely on."
Cllr Stephen Robinson, Lib Dem Leader of Chelmsford City Council, added, "Chelmsford is in a relatively strong position, but many councils are not so lucky. The Government has not fully compensated councils for the impact of Covid-19 on income streams like leisure centres. On top of that, it has again reduced the grant it gives to councils this year, which has forced council tax rises. In real terms, the amount of taxpayers' money that the Treasury provides to support Chelmsford residents has dropped yet again after falling by over £10.7 million in the previous ten years. The extra pressures in the budget this year reflect that squeeze."
You can see exactly how much council tax, income and funding your local council receives and how it is spent in this report to the full Council.