A senior council officer has warned the authority has to be “realistic” about future resources as it looks to develop a fresh round of cuts.
St Helens Council’s 2019-2020 budget was the final year of a multi-year budget settlement from central government and resulted in a need for £20.6m of savings to be found over three years.
In October, portfolio holders were asked to develop fresh savings plans to claw back a projected £5.4m budget gap, as cabinet agreed to set a one-year budget for 2020-2021.
The council also has also projected an in-year overspend to £6.7m, according to the latest financial monitoring report for 2019-20.
The report, which went before the audit and financial monitoring overview and scrutiny panel this week, says almost half of the planned savings will not be achieved this current financial year.
Jon Ridgeon, the council’s business support manager, said the failure to achieve savings and to identify alternative proposals has contributed to the current budget pressures.
The most significant areas where savings are not being achieved are within learning disability support services and the library service, which account for £2.8m of nonachievement of savings.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Labour’s Michelle Sweeney asked Mr Ridgeon how he feels the council will manage its finances in the future if additional resources are not forthcoming.
“It’s been very difficult”, Mr Ridgeon said. “We’ve had a sustained period of having to make reductions and savings because of reductions in government funding.
“It is very difficult to balance the books, but we are required legally to set a balanced budget every year.
“And throughout the whole authority, it’s not just finance, it’s finance working in partnership with services to look at areas where we can make efficiencies and savings and make sure we can balance the budget as best we can whilst having the smallest reduction or impact that we can on the services that have been provided to members of the public. It doesn’t get any easier.
“We would like to think that we will get additional resources but again – we’ve also got to be realistic.”
Mr Ridgeon said the one-year funding settlement provided by central government for 2019-20, unlike the usual multi-year funding settlement, has created extra “uncertainty”.
He said this has made planning for the future “very difficult”.
Coun Derek Long, chairman of the audit and financial monitoring overview and scrutiny panel, said it is clear local authorities are not being properly financed.
The former council leader said pressures on the authority’s budget are “real pressures on real people”, who will end up “damaged” as a result.
These comments were echoed by fellow Labour councillor Joe Pearson, the former cabinet member for protecting young people, who described the funds received from central government as “insufficient”.
Coun Pearson said elected members have recently been briefed by officers on savings, as portfolio holders look to develop detailed portfolio budget options to close the forecast budget gap.
The Billinge and Seneley Green councillor asked if the panel could receive regular updates on the impacts fresh cuts are having on the most vulnerable people in the borough.
“It’s a very difficult time for us as a local authority, all local authorities,” Coun Pearson said.
“The amount of money we receive from central government is insufficient to a degree that the savings we have to make impact on the most vulnerable people in our society and in our town.
“That being said I think as a scrutiny panel it requires us at regular intervals to have sight of the impact those cuts have on the vulnerable people with mental ill health, older people, etcetera, and children.
“If we can add that as an ongoing report to this committee, that would be very helpful, and I think it would help satisfy the general public that we’re doing the best we can for all of our residents.”