Cuts to Eastbourne services agreed as borough council looks to balance books
Eastbourne council leaders have given the go ahead to a series of major cuts as the authority looks to make significant savings over the next two years.
Approved by Eastbourne Borough Council’s cabinet on Wednesday (June 2), the savings are intended to plug a projected budget shortfall of around £60,000 by the end of this financial year and more than £4m in 2022/23.
The savings programme includes: plans to reduce the level of maintenance in the town’s parks and seafront; an increase to the cost of garden waste collections by £5 a year; less frequent street cleansing; and shorter opening hours for public toilets.
Speaking at the meeting, Liberal Democrat council leader David Tutt said the savings were due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the council’s income.
Cllr Tutt said: “What we looked at last year was a loss of millions of pounds in terms of the income we received from the investments we made such as the theatre income, the exhibition income, the conference income and our concessions along the seafront.
“But there was also a reduction in the amount of money we received from council taxpayers – who were hard pressed as a result of covid – and businesses that closed, at least temporarily, and were unable to pay their business rates. There has been a perfect storm.
“I have also seen some of our long term tenants of our commercial properties, people who have paid regularly on a monthly or quarterly basis for many years, struggling because they have had their income switched off in the same way we have.
“That is not going to be something that is recovered overnight. It is not going to be something that is recovered this year or next year. It is going to take time.”
The full programme of savings also include plans to make some changes to the council’s events, both within Devonshire Park and its outdoor events. As part of this, only events which do not require council subsidy would proceed.
Also for the chop are councillors’ ward grants, which are to be reduced from £10k to £5k this year and down to £3k in 22/23.
This comes alongside plans to reduce the amount the council gives out in grants to community organisations and to completely suspend both the council’s small grants and disability inclusion fund grant programmes in 2021/22 and 2022/23.
Projects to support disability inclusion, such as enabling an accessible beach and providing access advice to businesses, will continue however.
The authority is also set to go out to consultation on plans to cut a council tax discount for second homes.
The new round of cuts come despite a number of pre-planned savings and the government giving the council permission to borrow funds to cover its spending shortfall (a process known as capitalisation). The council is also set to receive £1.89m from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund.
The council expects to borrow £6m to plug the hole in its spending this year, but even with already planned savings of £850k, the authority still needs to find a further £60k through these new cuts.
The picture is even starker in 2022/23, as the council expects it will need to find £4.07m of additional savings on top of £2.5m already planned for.
While no objections were raised about specific cuts, Conservative councillors criticised a lack of details around what savings the cuts would bring in.
Cllr Kshama Shore, the recently-elected Conservative councillor for Sovereign ward, said: “I just don’t know whether these are actually going to come up with the savings we need to make.
“For example, proceeding only with events that do not require council subsidy. Okay that makes great sense, but we must have 2019 costs so we can actually understand what savings we are going to make.
“The rest of them, I have to say, do feel like tinkering around the edges. Again, if I were told what the savings are, I could actually understand these.”
A similar view was taken by Conservative group leader Robert Smart, who said: “The Lib Dem administration cannot continue to blame the government and covid for its self-inflicted financial woes.
“The estimates for the recovery and reset programme were set in February. But they are based on continuing covid into perpetuity with net costs of around £19m to £20m per annum.
“Although we don’t have audited accounts as a solid base, net annual costs were running between £13m and £14m per annum pre-covid. Why should net costs be £6m more than they were pre-covid?
“We need the answer to that question before addressing the very modest proposals [in the report].”
These arguments saw some pushback from Liberal Democrats, however,
Cllr Alan Shuttleworth said: “The things that we are having to do are not choices we would want to make. They are not choices we would have been making in normal circumstances.
“My plea is to the government actually, rather than here, to look again and review the decisions they’ve made about the impact on councils up and down the county.
“Instead of allowing us capitalisation – effectively to borrow additional money – to put that grant into councils, so we can get back much quicker to running the services the public of Eastbourne want us to run.
“Let’s protect local services. Let’s get the regeneration moving again. So I say to government, please rethink on that.”