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Cost cutting sees West Berkshire Council reduce projected overspend – but there is still a financial black hole

West Berkshire Council says it is reducing its projected £6.6m overspend by half.

It claims to be on track to trim the deficit to £3.3m by March 2024.

The Government is due to announce a 6.5 per cent increase in the amount it gives to councils to spend.

Michael Gove, the communities secretary, will announced the £64bn support package on Monday, less than a fortnight after he was warned that an unprecedented number of councils are likely to declare themselves bankrupt.

Deputy leader of West Berkshire Council, Jeff Brooks
Deputy leader of West Berkshire Council, Jeff Brooks

The funding, which will provide extra support for social care and housing, is expected to fall far short of the amount councils need and will come in lower than the funding increase councils received in 2023, which was 9.4 per cent, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the news.

Earlier this month, a poll by the Local Government Association revealed that nearly one in five council leaders believe it is now “fairly or very likely” that their council will go bust in the next 15 months.

According to the LGA survey, inflationary costs and soaring demand for child protection, adult social care and homelessness services are pushing councils of all political colours to the brink.

West Berkshire Council has already announced a raft of cost cutting measures, as it is projecting an overspend next year, with much reduced savings in the bank.

The work is being driven by a forecast overspend this year which originally stood at £8.7m, and with a £14m gap next year between the cost of delivering services and the funding it expects to receive.

It has made a significant reduction in spending on external agency workers – which has a current run-rate of £580k over the past four weeks compared to £748k during the same period last year.

The council is also driving more of its agency staff needs through its own supplier.

“Using Comensura improves our financial efficiency as it provides better value for money, greater oversight of the use of agency workers and advantages with regards to agency workers moving into permanent roles,” said a spokesperson.

Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West), deputy leader of West Berkshire Council, said: "It is encouraging to see a forecast of around £2m annually in reduced spend through the measures we have taken.

“There is more to do but we are striding out in the right direction.

“While it remains a challenging time there is reason to be cautiously optimistic for the future as we work to budget efficiently and effectively to put us in a good stead for future years.”

The council is midway through a public consultation on some of the cost cutting measures it wants to bring in.

Household waste centres will have reduced opening hours, there will also be fewer litter and dog waste bins and the grass won’t be cut as much.

The Willows Edge Care Home is also likely to either close, or have another provider, saving the council £240,000. A petition has been launched to keep that open.

Community transport is also in the chopping zone, with a proposed £10,000 being shaved off its contribution from the council.

Reducing the dog and litter bins is said to trim £90,000 off the budget and car parks charging being ‘restructured’ will save a further £450,000.

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