The County Council budget for 2023-24 was approved at the meeting on 14 February. There are huge pressures in key areas; these are caused by inflation and by increasing demand. The County Council is responsible for adult social care (in which HM Govt has suspended its reform of financing), children’s services including supporting Special Educational Needs, and highways.
The settlement from central Government was reasonably generous, but there is still far less money than we would need to be able to do all the things that residents ask for.
The County Council (like all other Tier 1 and 2 councils) is permitted to only increase council tax by 2.99% (or £5 if that is higher) and in addition has been told by the Government to charge a precept of 2% for adult social care. Parish and Town councils have no such constraints.
Rather remarkably, given the demands on budget, the opposition suggested cutting services in key areas like libraries to save 32p per household per week. These were defeated.
The budget included the following measures:
Children’s Services & SEND:
I am delighted to say that children’s services will see an inflation-busting boost of 12.3% (£18.8m). In this climate, providing a real terms increase (+1.6%) to children’s services, including for special educational needs and other vulnerable children in care, has been difficult to achieve, but reflects the priorities of the administration. £500,000 will be spent to speed up needs assessments (EHCPs) for children with SEND.
This accounts for approximately half of OCC’s budget and is particularly sensitive to inflation due to the labour-intensive nature of care. Because of the size of the budget, it is difficult to provide an inflation-matched rise. However, adult social care will get a 6.8% (£14.4m) increase to support its work, which will soften the impact of inflation. The ‘Oxfordshire Way’ reforms, to help people remain in their own homes where appropriate, also support more efficient use of budget.
We will be investing an additional £1.6m to reduce flooding on roads – clearing ditches and cutting through red tape (riparian rights!) that prevent action on the ground. Monies will also be used to clean signs and improve road markings. By investing in flooding prevention, we can reduce damage to road surfaces and save taxpayers’ money. However, it remains the case that successive grant reductions from Government means that we have too little money to manage such a large network.
It’s easy to talk the talk on climate – but walking the walk is much harder. Amongst other initiatives, there is increased funding for tree planting (essential not only for carbon capture, but also localised climate resilience).
Voluntary organisations, libraries, and other services
Library services will be supported as they account for the loss of income from DVD rentals etc. Voluntary organisation will also again be given a year’s rent holiday in cases where they pay rent to the County Council.
Highways maintenance and developments
I am sure anyone who walks, cycles or drives will have noticed the huge number of potholes following the rain and frost. They are being fixed as fast as is possible with the limited number of people available to do the work. Please keep reporting issues on Fix my Street.
Work is going on to revise the A40 plans and ensure they can be fitted within ‘the pot’ made available by central Government. The original plans, drawn up several years ago, exceeded this limit because of the recent inflation pressures.
The Access to Witney scheme (to make the junction at Shores Green better, with access to and from the A40 heading west) will be going to the planning committee within the next few months. Assuming it is approved, this may affect the quantity of traffic coming through villages south of the A40. South Leigh Parish Council (and I) are keen that this be restricted as much as possible via 20 mph speed limits and through the introduction of a weight limit in South Leigh.
As you will probably know, the road between Cassington and Yarnton has been closed because of a landslide onto the railway line. There are no trains on the Hanborough to Oxford line. The expectation is that National Rail will have repaired the embankment sufficiently to reopen the railway and road this week.
Botley Road closure at the station
There is still no news from Network Rail about when the bridge under the railway at the station will be shut, even though they have been going ahead with the work to demolish the buildings that need to be removed for the new station to be built.
The closure of Botley Road to cars and buses will have huge impact on residents and has a knock on effect on all the other roads, and on plans to make bus journeys quicker.
First and Last Mile, who run the service from Standlake, Northmoor and Stanton Harcourt to Eynsham and from Eynsham to Freeland and Hanborough, have just had their first anniversary of being in service. It is an invaluable service, not least for the large number of pupils who use it to get to Bartholomew School. They are always in need of more drivers to go on their roster and would be delighted to hear from any volunteers.
Meanwhile, the Government gave money to the County Council, as part of its commitments to improve bus travel times, to provide electric buses for use across our county by Stagecoach and the Oxford Bus Company. The first of the 159 electric buses should be in service in September.
Although there are no County Council elections this year, there are District Council ones. Under new legislation, voters will require photo ID when voting in person. Postal voting remains, for now, unchanged. Voters without a passport or driving licence, or various other documents that the Government has decided are acceptable, can get a Voter Authority Certificate. Details are available at www.westoxon.gov.uk/voterid.
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