Counting the cost of COVID on council finances

The Coronavirus pandemic cost Plymouth City Council over £20 million this year and looks set to cost at least £10 million next year.

Like families, businesses and organisations everywhere, the Council is counting the cost of COVID-19 as it attempts to set a balanced budget for next year to keep the city running and crucially, to keep people safe.

Cabinet Member for Finance Mark Lowry said: “The figures tell their own story of what an extraordinary time it is - over half a million pounds taking hundreds of homeless people off the streets, £2.9 million caring for our children and young people in need and £3 million lost income as businesses struggle to pay rent.

“And while we are grateful that some of these costs have been covered, there is still a gap of over £7 million."

The effect of the pandemic also means that fewer people can afford to pay. Last year 74,603 households paid council tax. This year it is 73,115 households as more people are claiming council tax support.

The Government’s provisional settlement has indicated that for every £5 the council has available to spend, nearly £3 is from the council tax payers of Plymouth. The Government has also told councils that they will be allowed to charge a precept - or contribution - of up to three per cent on top up of the final council tax bill to pay for elderly people needing social care.

Councillor Lowry said: “We're facing the deepest recession in 300 years - millions of people are worried about the future of their jobs and how they will make ends meet. It is absurd that the Government is forcing local councils to hike up council tax.

“We still don’t have all the information from the Government we need. In the middle of a pandemic we don’t know what our Public Health Grant for the year is. Last year it was £15.3 million, so it is rather important.”

The Council had only just set its budget for 2020/21 when the country went into the first lockdown. It had to urgently implement exceptional measures, including setting up a temporary mortuary, securing supplies of PPE for care homes and ensuring there was support for more than 10,000 medically vulnerable residents who had to shield. While Government grants have supported some council expenditure during the pandemic, it has only been compensated for 71p in every pound spend in responding to COVID-19.

The Council is currently looking at allocating an extra £5 million to meet the cost of protecting vulnerable children and looking after the city’s elderly residents.

Plymouth has also seen a reduction in its main source of Government funding (the revenue support grant) from £76.6 million in 2013/14 to only £9.74 million this year.

Councillor Lowry added: “We have less money and more work, but we are doing our best and are trying to make our services better in very difficult times.

“But we are listening to what people are telling us. A massive 70 per cent of all Council Tax is spent on looking after children and the elderly - and we will continue to focus our resources on keeping people safe.

“But we also know how important the state of our streets are, so we intend to add an extra £600,000 into the streets budget, so we can better clean the streets and repair the roads.”

Finance officers have calculated that the cost of running council services next year will need a budget of £195.822 million but this will not be finalised until February 22. How much Council tax people will have to pay will be finalised at the same time.

A full report including final options to balance the budget will be considered by Cabinet on 9 February.