The devil is in the detail

By Tracie Langley | 02 December 2020

‘Tis the season to be jolly. That time of the year just before Christmas when us finance people get excited about the chancellor’s announcement on the public sector Spending Review. I remember, in the old days, the whole finance team would sit in the office and wait expectantly for the director of finance to talk through the details of the settlement.

It was a time of technical jiggery pokery, comradery, and excitement which was topped by a trip down to the pub to celebrate or commiserate. This Wednesday, I sat on my lockdown sofa watching the telly on my own knowing that my technical team were doing the same with the occasional ‘oooohhhh’ text between us marking confirmation of a surprising giveaway.

In these extraordinary times when our budgets are at best uncertain and at worst unsustainable, the best message I could give to my finance portfolio holder was ‘well, I think a helpful roll over from last year plus a bit more cash to support our COVID response’. As we expected, the adult social care precept has been extended which will allow us to increase base budgets in that area deferrable into 2022/23. Of course, this is cushioned also by the additional grant but in effect pushing the base budget problem of COVID bulge care packages into future years. Further grant for council tax support is gratefully received and for Cornwall, an extension of the business rates pilot is also welcomed. We are unsurprised at a further public sector pay freeze; five years of a previous freeze has already had an impact on overall wage levels and unlikely to reverse decisions to lose posts to redundancy. The exclusion of the NHS workers also creates further disparities in an integrated health system where there is already a difference in the wage levels of social care and health workers that we are trying to resolve. It remains to be seen if this actually happens through local negotiations in local government. A reduction in Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) rates is helpful especially as we support delivery of infrastructure programmes. So, as is always the case, the devil is in the detail, the additional cash helps but doesn’t help the base budget position we were already managing.

Tracie Langley is chief operating officer and s151 at Cornwall Council

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