Two months after speculating it could have a surplus of £13million in 2020/21, West Sussex County Council has announced it is now £2.2million short of balancing its budget.
The news was shared at a meeting of the cabinet, where Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for finance, said the council’s position had ‘changed quite dramatically’.
Presenting an update on the medium term financial strategy for 2020/21-2023/24, Mr Hunt said the council had faced a ‘lot of challenges’.
He added: “The pressures on our services, particularly children’s and fire & rescue services following the outcomes of their individual inspections, the pressures on all our services continues to grow.
“Despite the excellent work many of our staff do, there appears to be an unrelenting demand for the many services we provide.
“This is the same across the country.”
Things haven’t been helped by the fact the government has been so focussed on all things Brexit that it is yet to announce what funding, other than a one-year stop gap for 2019, would be given to local authorities over the next few years.
The calling of a General Election has added to that uncertainty.
Mr Hunt said: “We’re currently in the last year of a four-year government settlement and by now we’d expected to have a new multi-year settlement in place.
“However, due to other priorities at Westminster, this has not materialised. Instead the government announced in September a one-year spending round for 2019 only.
“Since then the election has been called, which means that there has been no budget and, more importantly, there will be no final confirmation of the provisional settlement – normally in early December – but it won’t be now until a new government is in place.
“Hopefully it will be a priority.”
Mr Hunt said next year’s plans were ‘a little bit in the air’ until the council knew what sort of government would be in power – and whether that government would honour the 2019 spending agreement.
He added: “Beyond next year particularly is a real challenge.”
A report to the cabinet said the county council had a gross budget gap of £73.6m between 2020 and 2024, which would drop to £36.4m once a raft of proposed cuts had gone through.
With no government agreement in place, Mr Hunt said those figures were based on ‘likely funding’ worked out from past experience.
As for the £2.2m shortfall, he added: “We are obviously continuing to work on this and it is our aim to present a balanced budget without the use of reserves to the county council in February.
“But more work needs to be done on that.”
The report showed plans for almost £27m more spending by 2023/24 – rising to £646.8m from next year’s £620m.
Council tax bills will rise, though, with £61.5m more expected to pour into the County Hall coffers by 2023/24 – £539.7m compared to next year’s £478.2m.