Council keeps spending plans under wraps as deadline for budget looms

So far it’s been confirmed that council tax will rise by 4.99% and council staff have been offered voluntary redundancy, but major details are not expected to be revealed until later in the month, reports Josh Mellor, Local Democracy Reporter

Credit: doockie via Canva

Waltham Forest Council is remaining tight-lipped about its spending plans for next year as the end of February legal deadline to approve its budget looms.

Behind closed doors, council leader Grace Williams, her cabinet and senior officers are understood to have already agreed their priorities in a process known as the “star chamber” in Autumn last year.

At the time, Cllr Williams publicly warned of “difficult decisions” ahead, including making some public-facing services “digital self-serve where appropriate”.

What has already been confirmed is that Waltham Forest’s share of council tax will rise by 4.99% – which comes to about £80 per year for a band D property – and staff have been offered voluntary redundancy with a £5,000 sweetener deal.

However, limited details have been shared of how the council plans to balance out an estimated £28million budget gap over the next two years.

Plans due to appear in the final budget report next week could include cuts to day-to-day spending, income generation, or dipping further into the council’s reserves.

Waltham Forest does not consult the public on its annual budgets before they are approved, and has declined to brief the Local Democracy Reporting Service on what it is considering this year.

When asked about its failure to publish details of £6.7m in cuts and savings in last year’s budget papers, a spokesperson said: “The council is transparent and meets all its legal requirements.”

It also argues that the voluntary redundancy council staff scheme, which closes on 12th February, “does not require” any public consultation because it is an “internal management initiative”.

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They added: “We will prioritise maintaining services that residents rely upon when making any decisions on staffing.”

Draft government figures published in December say Waltham Forest’s grant funding for 2024/25 will increase by a below-inflation rate of 4.3% to £98.7m per year.

This is more than neighbouring Redbridge Council, which will receive £70m next year, or the £39.5m going to Havering Council, which – like several councils nationally – is on the verge of declaring itself effectively bankrupt. 

However, Waltham Forest’s funding is significantly less than Newham’s £167m or Hackney’s £164m.

Part of the reason for this is said to be the government’s failure to update the way it has calculated each council’s funding needs for at least a decade.

Paul Douglas, cabinet member for finance and resources, said the current government system of confirming councils’ funding only one year in advance also fails to provide “clarity”.

He added: “The ongoing failure of this government to address the financial problems in local government and the cost-of-living crisis facing our residents has left us with no choice – we must take tough decisions now to balance our budget and prioritise the essential services on which residents rely day in, day out.”

The government has said wants to “reform and modernise” how councils are funded in the next Parliament, to make the system “simpler and fairer”.

Exact details of the budget are expected to be published here on 14th February. They will then be scrutinised publicly by a committee of councillors on 20th February. Cabinet is due to give its final approval on 22nd February, followed by a full council meeting on 29th February.

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