People, businesses and organisations across the Lancaster and Morecambe district are being asked for their views as Lancaster City Council considers its budget decisions and priorities for next year.
This year’s current budget, agreed back in the spring, included some controversial or emotive decisions such as city council staff job losses and changes, the closure of visitor information centres in Morecambe and Lancaster, museum opening hour changes and forthcoming changes to business operations at Morecambe’s Platform entertainment venue.
But leading city councillors hope next year’s budget will be less painful because difficult decisions were taken this year and other measures are in place.
Traditional council funding from governments has fallen over the years. The council now has to rely more on income from other sources, including council tax, business rates, fees, charges and investments.
It is also exploring new ways of working with big organisations such as the NHS, Lancaster & Morecambe College and Lancaster University across its activities, as well as voluntary organisations.
City council services include waste collection, street cleaning, parks and playgrounds, CCTV and supporting arts and entertainment; to help it decide about savings or where new income might be generated, the council has launched a public survey.
Although the city council collects council tax, it only keeps around 12p in every pound – around £4.78 a week, or £248 a year for a Band D home – to fund its services. Most council tax income goes to Lancashire County Council (73p in every pound), Lancashire Police & Crime Commissioner (11p) and Lancashire Fire Authority (4p).
The city council faces an estimated budget gap of £1.7mn for the coming financial year 2024-25, starting in the spring. This gap will increase year-on-year, so action is needed for savings and to find new income. New sources of income could include generating more cash from leisure and arts venues, such as The Storey in Lancaster or The Platform in Morecambe, or from other sources. Decisions have yet to be made.
Green councillors Tim Hamilton-Cox and Caroline Jackson, who are cabinet members, took part in a media briefing about the budget process. Councillor Hamilton-Cox, who has a finance remit, said: “While the immediate seriousness of Lancaster’s own financial position is not quite as bad as that of many other councils, core funding has dropped by around 40 per cent since 2008-09. We are faced with significant and increasing financial challenges over coming years.
“The council is continuously reviewing how services are provided to ensure they are delivering all they can for communities and the local economy. To help us make what may be difficult decisions when we set the budget, we need to know which areas people value the most and why.”
He added: “There is a three-party shared political administration at the city council. This broadness may make some decisions slower and more deliberative. But I think it is also more thorough and we try to get consensus.”
Causes of financial pressures and relief were highlighted at the briefing. Pressures include higher costs, higher interest rates which makes borrowing money for the council more expensive, property repairs and maintenance, staff pay, helping homeless people and the government requirement for councils to help refugees. On the other hand, financial relief includes council income from investment activity, falling energy prices compared with last year, falling insurance costs, business rates arrangements, the use of digital technology and some income from selling council-owned assets.
Uncertainties include not knowing what government-set business rates will be in the longer-term and not knowing what local council finance settlements from the government will be. Announcements are due later this winter. Other uncertainties currently include car park fee income and council tax decisions, which will be finalised by the spring. Lancashire’s potential devolution deal is another uncertainty, regarding how potential government money might be allocated to individual councils, a county devolution deal is agreed.
Regarding business rates, the Heysham H1 nuclear power station’s working life has been extended, meaning rates will continue to be paid by its owner for a few years longer. Some large businesses may appeal against current business rate arrangements, the briefing heard, although the Government has provided business rates relief for smaller firms.
‘Lancaster is not like councils in trouble elsewhere’
Speaking at the briefing, Green Councillor Caroline Jackson, deputy city council leader, said:
“Nationally, we’ve seen councils such as Thurrock, Croydon and Birmingham in the news, regarding their financial problems. But we are not in that situation here. Our outcomes-based resource process is very measured. We have a good partnership between councillors and officers. In some cases elsewhere, there has not been a good partnership. Last year, we were just feeling our way with the council’s new outcomes-based resource approach. But this year we have a better understanding.
“We can make financial decisions for the short term and longer term, based on our priorities as a council. Sometimes, things may be taken out of the budget and kept for the future. It’s really important that we stay in a ‘safe place’ with budgets. Councils face risks all the time. But we look at these constantly and how we mitigate them.”
Overall, they aim to make financial decisions based on council priorities and key policies, as opposed to being forced into financial decisions which bear no reflection to desired priorities.
The council’s public survey closes on Sunday 17 December. Details are on its website and other communications. Anyone without internet access can get a paper version of the survey from town halls in Lancaster and Morecambe on weekday mornings to 1pm.
The council will also hold drop-in events on 6 December at Carnforth War Memorial Gardens from 10am-12pm, and Morecambe Library on 8 December, from 10am-2:30pm, with further sessions to be announced.