East Sussex council tax bills will increase again in April, after county councillors agreed their annual budget for the coming financial year.

On Tuesday (February 6), East Sussex County Council agreed its annual budget for 2024/25, with proposals including a 4.99 per cent increase in council tax.

This increase, which includes a special charge for adult social services, will see an average band D household pay the county council £1,778.31 next year — £84.51 more than the current year. 

Cllr Nick Bennett, Conservative cabinet member for resources and climate change, said:

“The proposal to increase council tax is not made lightly particularly given pressure on household budgets, but we have to protect our services now and for the future. Demand for care services continues to grow and we have little choice but to increase local taxation. 

“In proposing the budget, we are providing over £51m of additional funding for a range of pressures that services are experiencing as they continue to deliver the core services. That includes: £36m for contractual inflation and pay awards; £4m for population changes in adult social care; [and] £19m for pressures in children’s social care, including looked after children and foster care services.

“And I am pleased to say that there will be no new savings proposed in this budget.”

While the full budget does not include any new savings, it does include a planned use of reserves of up to £14.3m to cover a shortfall in the council’s available funds. Cllr Bennett said this decision to draw from reserves had been made in light of advice from the government. 

Cllr Bennnet said the final amount taken from reserves could be smaller, however, as the government has now indicated it may be providing additional grant funding for social care. Once details of this funding is known, he said, the council is expected to look into making a further investment in its highway maintenance work. 

The overall budget proposals were agreed without any amendments being tabled by opposition parties.  

Liberal Democrat group leader David Tutt said his party had reached this position as it felt the most significant decisions had already been taken nationally. 

Cllr Tutt said:

“Traditionally, Cllr Bennett or one of his colleagues would have got up and posed the budget. Then you would expect me to get up and move an amendment to it. 

“I could go through a list of items that we would like to spend money on differently than that proposed. This though is no normal year. This isn’t [council leader Keith] Glazier’s budget, it is not Cllr Bennett’s budget and, with respect, it is not our officers’ budget.

“This budget is Jeremey Hunt’s budget and that is being reflected in local authorities across the length and breadth of the country, because the government has tied the hands of local government; it has taken away our ability for self-determination.

“So on this occasion I won’t be moving an amendment, to do so would I believe just be foolhardy, because there is not a great deal of room for movement.” 

He added:

“The government is saying to us ‘use your reserves’. Now Cllr Glazier has stood up [in the past] and rightly told us ‘you can only use the reserves once, you can’t repeat that because the money is not there the second time.’

“Reserves are for genuinely rainy days, not when the government decides it wants us to spend them.” 

Similar views were put forward by Labour group leader Chris Collier and Green Party group leader Johnny Denis.

Cllr Collier said:

“This is the government’s budget and not this council’s budget. It is basically what has come down from ministers, with very little opportunity to do anything differently.”

Meanwhile, Cllr Denis said:

“Frankly it is utterly depressing isn’t it, that we don’t feel in a position to be able to put forward an alternative budget at this point.

“We’ve got a government that’s overseen a decade or more of deliberate decline in public and local services, while our residents have been sweated for every penny of available council tax.”

Opposition councillors also repeatedly spoke about the prospect of a general election, with several members arguing that the council would be in a better financial position with a different national government. 

This suggestion saw criticism from Cllr Glazier, who also took issue with the view that the budget would be decided by anyone other than members. 

He said:

“I join you in crediting our officers with doing a lot of work. But at the end of the day don’t kid yourselves that this is the officer’s budget. 

“It was the officers’ recommendation when it came to cabinet, [but] this cabinet — this political cabinet — took that budget and took it to you today and it will be our budget. Fifty of us will vote for it or not today. 

“So don’t try and hide behind ‘it’s officers’. Our officers work their socks off, but in conjunction with the lead members who put the political edge on it.

“If it had been a really good budget you wouldn’t have been patting us on the back and if it’s that bad, where are the alternatives?

“Your comments that ‘we need a change of government and then everything will change’. Well, I look forward to it. I can see the money pouring in now and we can all relax this time next year, because we’ll have a Labour government and all of that money pouring in. 

“Don’t kid yourself folks, the alternative is much, much more serious than that.”