Budget wheels firmly set in motion

Joseph Bulmer

In my 27 years serving the people of Torbay as a councillor, I've seen how the setting of the Council’s budget consumes a lot of energy both from officers and councillors.

Last month we set the Council’s budget for 2022/23 and I’m pleased that our proposals were unanimously agreed. The wheels are now well and truly in motion to ensure our communities benefit from the extra investment we have agreed on for priority areas.

This includes the funding to create a £1 million climate investment fund, and £570,000 for highways improvements. This will help us play catch up on the £20m back log of repairs that we inherited, which includes repainting double yellow lines, and improving signage and road safety. Last summer, we were able to allocate an additional £800,000 to tackle the historic underspend on our highways. We will also see the introduction of free passes for our toilets for our vulnerable residents.

Another big area of investment includes £1.6m for SWISCo, our waste management and street scene company. This comes on top of the millions of pounds of extra funding in the previous year. We know that, after years of under-investment by TOR2, collections of waste and recycling haven’t been up to the standard we should reasonably expect. Vehicles breaking down, combined with a shortage of drivers due to Brexit and Covid, have all added to the pressures.

That is why we have been investing in new vehicles and recruiting new drivers to ensure we have the right resources in place to deliver services more effectively. Thank you for your patience, and please be assured that SWISCo is working hard to recruit more HGV drivers. At the time of writing, we are due to recruit six more drivers and plan to build additional HGV driver capacity within SWISCo, so, if there are unexpected absences affecting the organization, there will be HGV driver capacity.

All of this investment in our priority areas has only been made possible thanks to this partnership administration’s prudent handling of the council’s finances. In particular, we have got a firm grip on Children’s Services’ finance and have tackled the historic year-on-year overspends.

There is nothing more important than protecting children and young people and giving them a good start in life to enable them to reach their full potential but, like other local authorities across the country, we have faced huge financial pressures doing this. Our efforts to meet the challenges are now bearing fruit.

The percentage of costly front-line agency staff we use has fallen sharply as the fortunes of Children’s Services have improved, which has attracted more people to come and work with us. A few years ago, Children’s Services had a vacancy rate of more than 50% but that has now dropped to 7.2%. That’s a much lower percentage than many other local authorities.

Putting the right things in place to attract the right staff, grow our own through our in-house Learning Academy, develop our workforce and succession planning have all been key to our success.  I’m really proud of the measures that have been put in place. Reducing our reliance on agency staff not only saves money, but it also gives more stability around the staff to support the young people and their families.

Although we have decided to invest in priority areas, there is no escaping that we are all feeling the pinch. Sadly, inflation, bills and other costs are going up, putting a strain on everyone. The Council hasn’t escaped this pressure and that is why we made the difficult decision to increase Council Tax. The decision wasn’t taken lightly, and we will work closely with our partners to ensure we offer support to those who need it. Additional financial support for households will also be given through the £150 Council Tax rebate and more details on how this will work can be found on the Council’s website.