Martin Thacker: How we froze the Council Tax in North East Derbyshire

29 Jun

Cllr Martin Thacker is the Leader of North East Derbyshire Council.

In line with our Conservative Manifesto commitment during the 2019 election, North East Derbyshire District Council announced a Council Tax freeze for 2020/21. The intention is to give real help to households in difficult times.

The Council could have opted to increase Council Tax up to a maximum of 1.99 per cent. However, putting financial wellbeing of North East Derbyshire residents at the forefront of decision making, the Council chose to forgo the additional £118,000 that the 1.99 per cent rise would have generated. Instead, the Conservative administration undertook a line by line budget review to identify ongoing savings so a freeze could be managed, without detriment to the quality of frontline services.

We did not foresee the coronavirus pandemic. As with many Councils, COVID-19 is having a detrimental impact on the Council’s 2020/21 budget and cash flow due to lost income from fees and charges. The grants received from Government are hugely welcome and being used to meet budget shortfalls. Unfortunately, funding only goes some way in meeting income losses and those forecast as the pandemic continues.

A further review of approved expenditure budgets for 2020/21 has taken place to help minimise the negative impact. Steps taken to minimise a downturn in income include:

  • Review of approved budgets to identify areas where expenditure can be reduced.
  • Planned restraints on expenditure for the duration of the pandemic and recovery phase to protect the Council’s cash.
  • Moratorium on the Capital Programme in the short term for all but essential works.
  • Moratorium on recruitment for three months, including renewal of temporary contracts and use of agency, unless essential.

Income and expenditure remains under regular review as the situation continues to evolve.

Cash flow remains a concern but is being managed closely to ensure measures put in place are sufficient to protect us through the recovery phase.

The impact of COVID-19 has been wide and far reaching within the Council. It has required a strong leadership response to ensure continued provision of essential services for residents and businesses. It has necessitated management of extensive home working, shielding, and isolation arrangements for staff.

At North East Derbyshire, we immediately set up a Community Support Team. We implemented business continuity arrangements to protect people who need our help and ensure vital services for all local residents. With some staff being redeployed into different jobs overnight, we created a team that has, to date:

  • Telephoned over 7,000 people to offer assistance
  • Delivered over 4,000 medical supplies
  • Provided and delivered food boxes
  • Delivered 700 local newspapers and magazines to those most isolated
  • Contacted over 1,800 businesses to help them access financial support
  • Provided 1,584 grants to businesses totalling almost £18 million
  • Awarded 350 businesses 100 per cent business rates relief
  • Received 20,188 calls and emails from residents and businesses requesting support and advice with Council Tax and Business Rates
  • Had over 32,000 views of the Covid-19 information section on the Council’s website
  • Received £8,265 in donations to support the District’s work for others
  • Launched the #Newskillschallenge to promote and teach British Sign Language
  • Sent regular social media posts reaching an audience of 360,000 views.

As a Council, we led a county-wide project to get homeless people off the streets. We are providing urgent accommodation for some of the most vulnerable (including victims of domestic abuse, those with specific needs, and people who have found themselves without a home for various reasons). We are now endeavouring to ensure this work has a positive and sustainable legacy with the objective that these people do not end up homeless again. We will ensure support and practical advice for them to move on positively with their lives.

Our Environmental Health Team has been central to implementing many of the Government’s social distancing and business requirements. They have been providing support to the local business community by sharing advice and guidance on risk assessments and controls necessary to become ‘COVID secure’, as businesses strive to reopen when permitted. So far, the team has contacted 500 premises and engaged positively with them. We are implementing plans to assist high street businesses in the four towns covered by our District. The Council has launched a shop local campaign too.

We are now moving from the response phase to recovery. The Council has developed plans to bring services back safely and kick start the local economy. We are working to breathe life back into North East Derbyshire once more.

All of this comes at a cost. However, by remaining on top of our current budget position, developing short, medium, and long-term forecasts, and discussing priorities and options regularly, we have been able to make informed decisions which support residents, staff, and businesses through this unprecedented national crisis.

The path of COVID-19 in front of us may be long but as a Council we remain steadfast in our resolve to put the welfare of every resident first and foremost.