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South Oxfordshire budget signals the start of significant plans to address financial challenges

At its meeting on Thursday 13 February, South Oxfordshire District Council approved its budget for 2020/21, marking the start of significant plans to address its financial challenges.

The district council has agreed to allocate £500,000 over the next two years for a ‘Transformation’ budget to support its financial stability.  This will include a review of a number of services, with the specific aim of achieving greater income generation.   

The focus on income generation will provide the council with a much better chance of reversing its current challenging financial position, caused by reduced government funding, historically low district council tax, and uncertainty about future funding.  The council faces a budget deficit this year of £2.2million and unless it takes urgent action now it will face a potential funding gap of more than £6million by 2024.

As part of this work, the ‘Transformation’ budget will also be used to develop plans for creating a single council with Vale of White Horse District Council, its neighbouring authority with which it already shares the majority of its services and staff.

The agreed budget allocates more than £106,000 to a one-year work programme aimed at helping to tackle the climate emergency in South Oxfordshire.  The programme, put forward by the council’s Climate Emergency Advisory Committee, includes assessing the energy efficiency of rented properties, looking at how and where tree planting may be suitable in the district, and how the council can achieve its zero carbon target for all its facilities by 2025.

The climate emergency will also be a key focus when the council works towards its new local plan.  The council has set aside £1.3million over the next five years for the new plan which will put sustainability and residents’ interests at the heart of future growth.

In approving the budget, Council confirmed a series of immediate cost savings, following a root-and-branch review. These savings will help to ensure that the council can continue to provide high quality front-line services for the immediate future.  There will also be increased charges for the councils’ garden waste and dog bin emptying services.

South Oxfordshire District Council has traditionally charged one of the lowest council tax rates in the country for the services it provides, and its spend per head of population compares well with most other district councils.  However, this historically low rate has contributed to the council’s current difficult financial position, with less money available to pay for services now, particularly when compared to other councils.  

To help ensure it can continue to provide its key services, at its meeting on 20 February, Council will be asked to approve raising council tax by £5 for the services it provides during 2020/21.  This means that an average band D property would pay £126.24.  Under current arrangements, the council can only increase its share of the council tax by £5.  If it wishes to increase it by more than this it would need to carry out a local referendum, which would probably cost more than £100,000 to run. 

Cllr David Turner, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance at South Oxfordshire District Council, said: “Following council approval, we can now begin to take the urgent steps necessary to address our financial situation.  This budget ensures that we have a robust and reliable position on which to base our plans for the upcoming year while we review our services and develop income generation ideas for the future.

“Despite our ambitious plan for the coming year, there remains a growing question mark over the medium and long-term financial situation.  This is due to the uncertainty over government funding, and we continue to urge ministers to provide clarity on this issue as soon as possible.”