Services could be cut or taken on by communities as Bristol City Council tries to plug a £23million blackhole.
Deputy mayor Cllr Craig Cheney has warned of “very difficult choices ahead”, even though next year’s budget shortfall is £18million better than expected only a week ago.
The authority had anticipated having to make up £41.2million in savings or extra funding ahead of the Chancellor’s autumn budget and spending review on Wednesday, October 27, council papers reveal.
But having crunched the numbers with City Hall finance officers following Rishi Sunak’s announcements, Cllr Cheney told a council cabinet meeting on Tuesday, November 2, that the funding gap was now lower than feared, although still large enough to require drastic action.
A press release issued shortly after the Labour deputy mayor spoke said a consultation would launch on Friday, November 5, seeking the public’s views on how to bridge the shortfall, which is linked to the pandemic and increasing social care costs.
It will include options for council tax levels and social care precept, but the council is also considering a number of areas to make savings, which it will consult on further if any changes are proposed.
These include “redesigning, reducing or stopping services where this is feasible” and “reducing the need for direct services by helping to enable other organisations, communities and individuals to take things on”.
The authority could also sell some of its buildings and make itself more “business-like” by charging the “market rate” for services.
Cllr Cheney told cabinet members that the Government had increased the council’s allocation of money but had still not committed to a multi-year settlement to give greater certainty.
“The autumn budget has funding to help councils in their efforts to support people at risk of rough sleeping and homelessness,” he said.
“Announcements of capital investment in skills, transport, house-building and the provision of school places for children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) are also all positive.
“However, we remain concerned that money allocated to social care from the health and care levy in the early years will be insufficient to fund reforms.
“The Chancellor announced a package of funding targeting education recovery but we are still awaiting a review of the SEND system and the element of this increased funding which will provide councils and schools with long-term certainty to meet the needs of children with SEND and resolve the Dedicated School Grant (DSG) deficits.
“This above will not meet all the extra costs and demand pressures to provide services at today’s levels.
“Following our review of the autumn budget and the medium-term financial plan assumptions we estimate the funding gap for 2022/23 has reduced to £23.1million.
“This remains a significant challenge for the coming year and we have very difficult choices ahead.”
He said the council’s budget could not be balanced – a legal requirement for local authorities – without more funding, a picture reflected across the country.
“Care provider services for adults and children, mental health support and increasing numbers of children with SEND continues to rise due to factors such as increasing demand, complexity of need, internal/external capacity and market stability issues in the independent sector,” Cllr Cheney said.
Green Cllr Katy Grant asked whether an overspend in adult social care should simply be accepted because of the additional financial strain from Covid and other factors, rather than the authority “continuing to look for ways to cut in a sector that is of vital importance right now”.
The deputy mayor replied: “The restriction we live in is that we have to balance the budget in the year somehow, so at the end of the year we will have to find ways to meet that overspend. We are straitjacketed into that.
“Adult social care in Bristol is quite expensive comparatively, so there is something wrong in there somewhere and we will continue to look at technological resources and other invest-to-save things to mitigate that.”
Cabinet member for adult social care Cllr Helen Holland said the council was trying to contain the additional costs at the same time as transforming services to make them more efficient, which was hard to do simultaneously.
“Frankly, the long-promised sustainable solution for adult social care from government is still not on the horizon,” she said.
A link to the budget consultation will be published on the authority’s website this Friday and will be open until Friday, December 17.