This is the ninth year in a row that the Council has had to make incredibly tough decisions and deliver significant savings to enable it to balance its books. The budget proposals for 2014/15 recommend £7.3m in efficiencies, achieved by continuing to renegotiate existing contracts, redesign services, reorganisation of teams and rationalising systems.
This has all been done in the face of extremely challenging financial conditions including significant ongoing reductions in Government Grants - a decrease of £7.6m (9.8%) in 2014/15 and another £9.8m (14.1%) for 2015/16.
Despite these major pressures, the authority has done everything possible to minimise the impact on essential front line services.
To ease the burden on residents, the Cabinet is once again recommending that Council tax for Southend - already one of the lowest in the country - should not be increased in 2014/15.
This would be assisted by accepting the offer of a Government grant to assist in meeting the shortfall incurred by freezing the tax.
Also, to help boost local businesses and encourage visitors to our shopping and tourist areas, car parking charges will be frozen across the borough for the fifth time out of the last six years.
As well as freezing the majority of other fees and charges, the Cabinet is also proposing to freeze all leisure charges to help residents to keep using these popular facilities.
If the Council approves these budget proposals then it will have saved £79m over the last nine years.
For the forthcoming financial year the Council has had to identify savings across its five spending areas, these include:
- Department for People - £4.468m
- Department for Place - £951,000
- Department for Corporate Services - £905,000
- Corporate Services - £95,000
Out of this saving, more than £300,000 of efficiencies will be made as new administration and business support services are put in place following the integration of the Children and Learning and Adult and Community Services.
This combined department has already become more efficient in coordinating better outcomes for vulnerable people and families, and in effectively commissioning and procuring services.
In the Department for Place, a £150,000 saving has been made by renegotiating the contract for leisure centre management which includes the Council's four leisure centres, Belfairs, Chase, Shoebury and Southend Leisure and Tennis Centre, which includes Swimming and Diving Centre.
A further £126,000 of savings will be realised following the Library Services review, as a new team structure is put in place. £710,000 is also being budgeted to deliver improvements to branch networks, as well developing a new library in Delaware Road, Shoeburyness, as outlined in the review.
The Department for Corporate Services has saved £130,000 by incorporating South Essex Homes Customer Contact staff into the Council's own Customer Services Centre, streamlining senior management across both services, ensuring a single, more coordinated approach for residents.
A further £10,000 will be saved following a review of the Cabinet, reducing the Portfolio Holders from eight to seven. Details of this proposal will be decided following the local election in May.
But the need to make such significant savings to be able to present a balanced budget will inevitably lead to some job losses at the authority.
A total of 49.5 Full Time Equivalent posts have been identified as being at risk, of which 26 are currently occupied. Employees in the affected areas and the trade unions have been fully briefed.
As in previous years, possible redeployment opportunities for individuals are already being highlighted within the Council's successful Talent Pool system, which will again help to keep the number of compulsory redundancies to an absolute minimum.
The Council is pushing forward with a £60m Capital Programme, which is supported by the judicious use of reserves, to deliver improved facilities and boost growth locally over a four year period. These include:
- £12.2m investment in early years provision, including expanding primary school places at Hamstel and Darlinghurst, as well as building a new primary school to accommodate the growing need for primary school places
- Investing £10m into developing the Airport Business Park, to create significant long term job opportunities and boost economic growth. This will continue to support recent investment into London Southend Airport
- £8m to preserve the improvement of Victoria Avenue, including redevelopment
- £8m of investment in the Council's Decent Homes Programme, to help ensure that its social housing stock is maintained at the highest standards so that residents' homes are comfortable, warm and modern
- £6.720m of highway improvements across the town reducing the potential for potholes to occur as well as £3.2m to support the A127 Tesco Junction improvements
- A £2.5m invest to save programme to replace all street lights with more energy efficient and sustainable LED technology, which will help save money for future budgets
- Significant investment of more than £710,000 in our branch libraries to further improve accessibility, including improved wi-fi services, as well as developing a new library in Shoeburyness.
"This is the ninth year running where we have had to deliver significant savings. If this budget is approved, we will have achieved a total of £79 million savings during those nine years - the equivalent of a 129.6 per cent Council Tax hike.
"We have been able to safeguard core front line services by reviewing and reassessing how these are delivered.
"Where necessary we have redesigned our approach to ensure that these services remain cutting edge and receptive to the needs of residents while being financially sustainable.
"To help our residents and businesses during these tough financial times, we are freezing Council tax for the third time in four years, as well as freezing parking charges, and leisure charges.
"Another way to help us balance the books has been to find further income streams. Due to the significant reduction in our financial support from Government we have to make sure we do not depend on just one source of revenue.
"With our partners, particularly in health, we have identified opportunities to help improve services further.
"Despite the major financial challenges, the Council continues to make its mark nationally and is achieving much through its successful, ongoing partnership working.
"In September the Forum Southend-on-Sea opened in Elmer Square. This is the first tri-partnership project of its kind in the country between the Council, the University of Essex and South Essex College, offering a unique library and learning hub.
"We are looking to the long term by investing in the economy - in jobs and careers in Southend. This will reinforce the opportunities offered as a result of Southend being chosen by the Government as a City Deal area.
"We want to continue to provide aspirations and careers here in Southend, as well as helping to address disadvantage and low household incomes in the borough.
"The Council and its partners have been designated a health and social care pioneer, and the Council has also been shortlisted to be one of the groundbreaking Big Lottery early years pioneers.
"Our good housekeeping over the last few years has allowed us to set aside reserves. Four years into the current austerity budgeting we have decided to use a prudent element of our reserves to address issues which are key to the borough's future prosperity.
"These are specifically for issues such as School Improvement - to recruit advisers for early years, for secondary education and a pool resource for executive and deputy executive head teachers - and for Economic Development, to recruit dedicated officers and fund linked projects.
"The economic conditions are now right to stimulate further economic activity and regeneration as well as addressing specific service concerns where some additional investment can make a significant and long term difference.
"Some of this investment will be recouped over the medium term - such as in the Airport Business Park and regenerating Victoria Avenue, and some is also supported by grant income.
"We have achieved a developmental budget in austere times.
"It cushions households from financial pressures, while at the same time, we are spending money on issues our residents raise particular concerns about - such as continuing to improve roads, pavements, street lighting, investing in our childrens' futures through improving schools.
"There is a continual drive for efficiencies and a continuing success in levering funds into the town - often through competition - from the Government and other agencies.
"Despite these difficult times, the Council continues to gain prestigious recognition for its sustained high level performance. More than 30 teams across the organisation have either won or been shortlisted for a host of different national awards in the last 12 months."