East Sussex County Council faces ‘uncertainty’ in its financial future, councillors have said.

The comments came on Tuesday (November 7), as cabinet members discussed the latest Reconciling Policy, Performance and Resources (RPPR) report — a document which set out the authority’s financial planning as part of its formal budget-setting process.

Cllr Nick Bennett, cabinet member for resources and climate change, kicked off the discussion by setting out some of the challenges the council faces. 

Cllr Bennett said:

“The report highlights the high level of change and uncertainty that characterises the local government environment, both locally and nationally. 

“Councils across the country, including ourselves, are seeing unprecedented increases in demand and cost for all services, particularly though across children’s [services], special educational needs and disabilities, and adult services. 

“With inflation remaining higher than earlier estimates and demand for services increasing, our total level of expenditure continues to rise.”

He went on to say that the council’s financial forecasts had worsened since they were last discussed. In June, the council expected to face a £55.5 million deficit by 2026/27. Since then, this forecasted deficit has increased to £64.7 million. 

Cllr Bennett also pointed to a deficit in the coming financial year. Without taking measures, he said, the council would face a £27.7 million deficit in 2024/25. With grant funding and other measures, this is expected to reduce to £16.2m

Cllr Bennett said:

“At this stage of the RPPR process a balanced budget is not able to be presented, but work will continue to find options to reduce the deficit, which may include the use of reserves.”

This financial position saw concerns raised by opposition councillors of all stripes.

David Tutt, leader of the council’s Liberal Democrat group, said:

“We will pledge our continued support to joint lobbying to try and get government to realise the important services that local government provides and the fact that our residents truly value and need those; this is not some sort of additional luxury that they are looking towards.

“The situation here is a difficult one. We are seeing now a gap going up to £65 million. Even with the hopes of what might be coming into play … we are still left with a £16 million gap and need to find a way of funding that.

“It is going to concentrate all of our minds over the next couple of months, before we get to the budget-setting in February.”

Other opposition councillors took a more confrontational approach, including Labour’s Godfrey Daniels who said:

“While officers have done a good job trying to accommodate various lack of funding issues over many years, we have cut things to the bone.

“When I read the policy context update, to be honest it reads as an obituary for the Conservative government …all of the things that they are not in control of, they are not coping with.

“I don’t expect you to agree with that. But reading between the lines of the document, it says ‘let’s hope that we get a non-Conservative government, preferably a Labour government, in the future.”

Responding to Cllr Daniels,  Conservative council leader Keith Glazier said:

“Councillor, you won’t have forgotten in 2018 when we told the government that we were going back to the core offer and all of the work we have done since then to actually convey to the people of East Sussex what it is we can afford with the money we are given. 

“We have lobbied year-on-year for more money, we continue to lobby for more money, so I don’t see that we are condoning or agreeing with our current government position. 

“What we are saying is we are realists and we are providing the best service possible for the people of East Sussex with the resources we have. We’ve done that year in, year out.”

He added:

“What I won’t have is you telling us that the services for the people of East Sussex have been woefully missing; they haven’t.”

This argument did little to reassure Green Party councillor Wendy Maples. She said:

“The situation as it stands is not great.

“What I worry about the most, is that there has apparently been loads of lobbying. Lobbying day in, day out, as you say and yet we haven’t got what we’ve asked for. We go for begging bowls for little pots of money here and there and what that means for our populations is day in, day out struggle. 

“I think pointing to some time in the future, you know ‘jam tomorrow’. It is not even bread tomorrow at this point.”