Each Scrutiny Board in January 2023 will receive a report outlining the budget proposals identified within their respective Portfolios for the period from 2023/24 to 2025/26. Feedback on the budget proposals included within this report will be reported to the Resources and Delivering Value Scrutiny Board and Full Cabinet in February 2023.
In attendance: Lauren Beach (Solihull MBC - Finance Manager for Economy & Infrastructure); Andrea Santer (Solihull MBC - Finance Manager for Public Health); Alan Brown (Solihull MBC - Assistant Director – Highways & Environment); and Neeraj Malhotra (Solihull MBC – Deputy Director of Public Health).
The Board considered a detailed report setting out the budget proposals identified for 2023/24 to 2025/26 within the Communities & Leisure; Partnerships & Wellbeing; and Environment & Infrastructure Cabinet Portfolios as recently endorsed by the Budget Strategy Group.
The report outlined a forecasted budget position for those Portfolios, the pressures identified over the period up to 2025/26, together with the actions proposed to mitigate against them. The key pressures highlighted within the report included:
· Leisure Centres income and costs.
· Funding for the Employment and Skills Team.
· Car parking income.
· Strategic Environment Contract (SEC) costs.
Officers reported that the main proposals to mitigate against those pressures included:
· Renegotiation of the Leisure Centres contract.
· Strategic review of future Employment and Skills offer.
· Review of street lighting.
· Review of Communities & Partnerships Division.
The report drew attention to risks relevant to the Portfolio’s budget position including the operation of Leisure Centres; continuity of external funding; cost of trees within the public realm; and new requirements on waste disposal.
Additionally, the report highlighted the forecast funding gaps for the period from 2023/24 to 2025/26, as reported to the Budget Strategy Group and the Members Budget Seminar. A fourth meeting of the Budget Strategy had been scheduled for later this month to consider the updated position following the conclusion of some outstanding matters.
Each individual Scrutiny Board, this month, was now being asked to consider the budget proposals which related to the Cabinet Portfolios within their remit. Included within the report were details pertaining to portfolio-specific considerations insofar as pressures and proposed mitigations; key risks relevant to the budget proposals; and a schedule of fees and charges proposed for 2023/24 for services provided by the above three Cabinet Portfolios.
As a result of the report and supporting appendices, the following questions and observations arose:
· Cllr B Donnelly highlighted any increase in fees and charges for leisure centres may be a false economy and may cost more in the long run due to the perceived longer-term negative effects on health if fees and charges were prohibitive to residents wishing the access physical activity and exercise. Officers were asked if this scenario had been considered and what measures were in place to mitigate against it. The Deputy Director of Public Health confirmed that increases had been considered as sensitively as possible and the concessionary prices were unchanged* [*please refer to post-meeting note below]. A pricing differential remained between Tudor Grange Leisure Centre and North Solihull Sports Centre to take account of differing demographics and levels of deprivation. The Board was also advised that the operating costs for the leisure centres was extremely high and the energy crisis had added further significant budget pressures. Usage and footfall profiles were being actively monitored and the availability of some service offers (e.g. the health suite and spa) were being tailored around times of peak demand each day to help reduce energy consumption.
· Cllr A Feeney asked what consideration had been given to fees and charges relating to Bereavement Services. The Finance Manager for Economy & Infrastructure advised that this service area fell outside of the scope of this Scrutiny Board, being the responsibility of the Resources Cabinet Portfolio. By way of a general update, Officers advised that the pressures on that service (relating to the impact of the energy crisis) were being considered corporately. Fees and charges for that service area were proposed to increase in 2023/24, in line with inflation.
· Cllr M Carthew highlighted the benefits of LED lighting and waterless technology in leisure centre facilities which were considered environmentally friendly and could contribute to budget savings via lower energy consumption. The Deputy Director of Public Heath confirmed the use of LED lighting already which was a single element of a suite of ongoing initiatives to reduce energy consumption at both leisure centres.
· Cllr G Sleigh referred to the UK Central Programme and asked for a further update on the funding allocations. The report highlighted that the West Midlands Combined Authority had indicated that the funding required to fully deliver all the projects within the Programme was unlikely to be available as originally envisaged. The Finance Manager for Economy & Infrastructure advised that feasibility work was continuing on the list of projects for Solihull and, as part of taking those business cases forward, alternative sources of funding would be sought where required and bids progressed.
· Cllr S Sheshabhatter asked for an update on funding for parking displacement and confirmation of which budget heading it would fall within. The Assistant Director for Highways & Environment confirmed that the Parking Displacement Programme still fell within the Environment & Infrastructure Cabinet Portfolio and a budget of £50k had been allocated to that programme for 2023/24.
· Cllr P Hogarth MBE welcomed no proposed tariff increases to the fees and charges within the Borough’s car parks for 2023/24. This was considered vitally important to protect the Borough’s retail trade, ensuring Solihull remained competitive with retail centres within neighbouring authorities, and supporting the ongoing post-pandemic economic recovery.
· The Chairman highlighted the new requirements for the disposal of domestic seating and asked what additional budget pressures this might cause. The Assistant Director for Highways & Environment advised that domestic seating to be disposed of would now need to be broken apart and incinerated (rather than landfill) to remove the risk of pollutants being released into the environment. The Council was currently negotiating contractual disposal costs and once agreed, it was anticipated that the disposal of this type of bulky waste would become much more expensive to the authority. Officers flagged this as a potential risk at this stage in the budget setting process and advised that at some point in the coming year, additional funding would need to be identified. Officers also assured the Board that the current level of fees and charges for bulky household waste collections was still reasonable, taking account of this specific emerging issue.
The above observations and recommendations of this Scrutiny Board would now go forward to the Resources and Delivering Value Scrutiny Board and Full Cabinet during February 2023.
[Post-meeting note: Following the meeting, an inaccuracy in an answer given to Members questions was realised. In response to a question about the increase in Leisure Centre fees and charges, the Deputy Director of Public Health erroneously advised that the concessionary prices were unchanged. The concessionary prices were increasing in line with inflation, and this was confirmed on pages 111-114 - Appendix B(i) - of the published agenda. Board Members were altered to this inaccuracy on 11 January 2023, and no additional comments or concerns have been received.]
That, the Board UNANIMOUSLY makes the following RECOMMENDATIONS to the Resources and Delivering Value Scrutiny Board and Full Cabinet:
That, subject to the observations and comments recorded in the preamble above, the Board:
(i) Acknowledges the pressures and mitigating actions set out in Appendix A to the report;
(ii) Supports the schedule of fees and charges proposed for 2023/24, as attached at Appendix B to the report; and
(iii) Supports the indicative service budget proposals for 2023/24, as outlined in the report at Appendix C.