'Setting a balanced budget for Devon'

The council has estimated a budget shortfall of £23million. Picture: Dominic Lipinski

The budget process is underway - Credit: PA

This time of year is always one of the busiest in local government. 

Through December, January and February we have to set the budget for the coming financial year. And, unlike national Government, we have to set a balanced budget by law with everything completed by the end of February.

Devon County Council is responsible for some 800,000 residents across a very disparate area ranging from the city of Exeter to coastal and market towns, villages and hamlets with two coastlines and two national parks.

We're responsible for social care for both a large elderly population and younger vulnerable adults. 

And then we also have responsibility for public health, schools and education, child welfare, more miles of roads than Belgium, strategic planning, trading standards, registering births, deaths and marriages and, indirectly, libraries and youth services. Things that affect us all.

That's what makes my job so fascinating. Whoever you are, the county council will almost certainly play some role in your everyday life and that's without Covid-19 and the extra help and support for which we have been responsible for almost two years. 

We also have to account for the ever-increasing demand for our services, particularly from our ageing population and vulnerable people and families. 

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And we are determined to fulfil our commitment for the county council to be net carbon zero by 2030 and to drive a clean, Green post-pandemic economic recovery across Devon.

All these services have to be paid for. 

Our income comes from a number of sources - government grants, business rates, charges for services and, of course, your council tax.

And as politicians we have to tread a very fine line of making sure we have enough income to provide these vital services while not asking you to pay more council tax than is absolutely necessary. 

Obviously everyone will have a different view on that but it's always at the forefront of my calculations, particularly so this year with the impending cost of living crisis.

Last week the Cabinet met to approve our target budget for 2022/23.

Our plan is to spend over £629 million on the services I listed above in the 2022/23 financial year with increases for our vital adult and children's services which are well above inflation.

Add that to the £678 million we oversee in the schools’ budget and over £165 million in our capital programme and you will see Devon has a turnover around £1.5 billion. 

Now there’s quite a way to go before the county council meets on February 17 to set our final budget.

Since I took over this job I’ve tried to do as many public consultations on the budget as possible.

When we were dealing with the austerity agenda, we held public meetings across the county in town and village halls and asked people where they wanted money to be spent and where they would accept savings.

Because of Covid, these meetings have had to be held virtually over the past two years.

But they gave me a fascinating insight into people’s thinking. 

You would be surprised at the considerable consensus there was and I have tried to reflect that in a very simple mantra of protecting the old, the young and the vulnerable.

For the last couple of years we have actually been able to put more money into our vital services to reflect the big increase in demand we are experiencing.

And I’ll be meeting with groups representing business, the unions and older people as well as the county’s scrutiny committees to hear their views before we finally put this budget to bed.