I have been a finance director for most of austerity. During that time there have been many challenges with emergency budgets, grant cuts, ministerial missives on reserves and the need to remodel large parts of the workforce while trying to maintain morale and productivity. It felt hard but today things feel tougher than they ever have.
At the time of writing we remain unsighted on the totality of financial support for COVID-19 in this year and, in the absence of a Spending Review, we have no visibility beyond March 2021. With that backdrop it is little wonder that numerous councils have raised the prospect of a s114 notice. The absence of clarity doesn’t decrease the need for planning though, quite the opposite but there are so many moving parts that it is a daunting task to pull together a coherent financial plan.
Take home-to-school transport for example. Will all schools open in September 2020? What social distancing measures will be in place? What changes can be made to offset distancing? What happens if there is a sudden spike in the virus? Is there enough capacity in the market to cope in any case?
And, if there is, what extra costs will this mean? In my council we estimate that this could cost up to £8m extra in the current financial year alone. But it might not cost a single penny more than the existing budget.
Transport may be a good example of how policy, viral prevalence and markets impact on financial planning but it’s hardly unique; add in increases in welfare, child protection cases and a social care market that was distressed before COVID-19 to name a few. Somehow out of all of this councils still need to have a plan for the future, but ‘certainty’ and ‘simplicity’ are concepts that are probably sometime away yet.
Gary Fielding is corporate director of strategic resources at North Yorkshire CC and president of the Society of County Treasurers