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Council finances come under fire ahead of next year's budget

Work is underway to ensure next year’s budget learns lessons from the last after council finances came under fire this week.

Royal Borough finance member Cllr MJ Saunders (Con, Bisham and Cookham) was quizzed by Cllr Paul Brimacombe (Ind, Cox Green) about why overspends in areas such as children’s services were not predicted, despite the national trend showing an increasing demand.

Children’s services has been highlighted by the borough’s leadership as a significant drag on the council’s budget, which reported a projected overspend of £7.4million last week.

That figure is expected by Cllr Saunders to be significantly lower by the end of the budget’s year thanks to mitigations and business rates income, but a spike in more children needing help from the council could yet impact the balance sheet.

Cllr Brimacombe told the council’s Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Panel on Tuesday: “I am under-confident about the budgeting process.

“I am looking forward rather than looking backwards… to making sure we are now getting that right.”

During the meeting at Maidenhead Town Hall, Cllr Brimacombe suggested the trend of increasing demand for children’s services could have been anticipated.

The Independent councillor – he cut ties with the Conservatives last week – said he was concerned with what lay ‘underneath’ the figures and he criticised the unachievable income included in the budget.

The council’s financial update report, released last week, noted how an income target of £60,000 at Windsor Guildhall had not been hit since 2014 when Berkshire Coroners’ Court stopped using it, meaning the loss of a contract worth £80,000.

Cllr Brimacombe also questioned how the council’s ways of saving money to offset the overspend might impact on the borough’s services.

He said that if it was believed they would not adversely impact services, why had those savings not been budgeted to begin with?

Cllr MJ Saunders insisted the budgeting was in line with how councils predict trends, but he accepted the business world might use different techniques.

“Depending on your perspective, clearly there were things in that budget in February which did not adequately predict certain adverse events and circumstances arising,” he said.

“What I can commit to this year is that when I come to scrutiny panels… I will look to do my very best to share with you the methodology that has been applied to underpin what I judge to be the key numbers that any rational scrutineer would say ‘have you got that right?’”

Russell O’Keefe, acting managing director at the Royal Borough, said the council officers needed to ‘get better as a management team’.

He said earlier in the meeting: “It is clear that while there was a clear rationale for those projections, as an organisation they have proven to be wrong, and what as a management team we need to do moving forward is make sure that modelling that informs those projections and any budget we put forward doesn’t get that wrong in the future.”

A lot of work had been done in recent weeks to ensure the next budget is ‘strong and stable’, he said.

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