Light at the end of the tunnel?
The February County Council meeting in Taunton, is always about one thing and one thing only. The budget for the year ahead. With no disrespect to those other topics that might ordinarily take attention.
This one is about the numbers. And in recent years the numbers have been grim. Somerset County Council had had the second lowest reserves of any county council for the past 2 years. Only Northamptonshire, that entered the local government equivalent of bankruptcy, had worse.
Today David Fothergill, Leader of the Council announced reserves of £62m and noted that the council expects to spend less than budget for the year 2019/20.
Mr Fothergill did caveat his announcement of the budget for 20/21 with the fact that he is not happy. He told the council “Somerset County Council does NOT receive its fair share of funding and I repeat that here and now, with a personal commitment that I will continue to lobby government to state the case for our county and this Authority.”
Going forward it was good to hear plans to set a balanced budget for the year ahead. That is an expectation. But there were also a series of considerable announcements that marked a real change from previous years:
£1m set aside for green projects brought to the council
£6.3m to be made available to adult social care providers
£2m for rural bus services around the county including a new direct bus service for Dulverton students to get them to colleges in Taunton
£1.5m to start a programme to bring in advisory 20mph zones outside schools across Somerset. This was music to the ears of Bridgwater councillors who have been doing this anyway for the past couple of years and lobbying for just such a scheme.
The mood in the chamber was upbeat and even the various opposition groups seemed to give grudging respect for both the budget and the direction of travel. Not quite enough respect to vote for it in most cases, but even so we have seen many worse debates in the chamber at Shire Hall.