District Council’s precept frozen for fifth year in a row while efficiencies keep vital services running
• Balanced budget for 2015-16
• Rare increase (2.7%) in Government grant
• Council Tax frozen for fifth consecutive year
• Lowest Council Tax in Devon and among lowest nationwide
• Next year a typical Band D householder will again pay EDDC just £121.78
• Free independent help and advice for struggling households
• Full details of Council Tax and Budget to be found online
• Pledge to make better use of council-owned assets
• Front-line services continue to be protected
• Support for local economy and tourism
• Regeneration of key resorts making headway
• West End of district proceeding apace
• Pledge to continue expanding council house stock
• Recycling to be improved through upcoming new contract
• Cost-cutting to continue and office move decision imminent
For the fifth year running, there will be no increase in East Devon’s share of the Council Tax, which is still the lowest in Devon and among the lowest nationwide.
Introducing the new Budget at East Devon District Council’s Full Council meeting on Wednesday (25 February), Council Leader Paul Diviani looked back on a period of progress and ahead to a year of aspiration, tempered with the need to continue limiting expenditure.
Among the successes we are continuing to deliver services at less cost than when the Coalition Government came to power, with Council Tax consistently frozen; vigorous housing and employment growth at the West End of the district; investment in tourism infrastructure – with a new hotel and other regeneration projects at Exmouth, plus a Jurassic Coast discovery centre under construction at Seaton; an ongoing increase in council house stock, reducing waiting times and homelessness; and a determination to improve efficiency and service delivery through office relocation among other measures.
Councillor Diviani said:
This is the first time since taking office that we have had an increase of 2.7% in our central Government grant – so we must be getting something right! And this puts us in third place nationally. Nevertheless, austerity is still with us and likely to remain so throughout the next parliament.
With the amount of Government debt still bedeviling our economy, firm measures will need to be taken to get the public sector in line with the private. This election will be one of the most important ones for making sure we have a strong and responsible Government as well as continuing the success of local government, which is widely acclaimed for its efficiency.
Turning to revenue income, he continued:
As in previous years, our income is roughly a quarter each in Council Tax and Central Government Grant and just over half in fees and charges. We are continuing to freeze Council Tax at the 2009 level.
In 2015/16 we will again deliver a wide range of important public services to the communities we serve at considerably less cost to Her Majesty’s Government than was the case when the Coalition came to power. I spend a fair amount of time in Westminster and at conferences and we have good relations with Ministers and through the LGA People & Places Board, we are in touch with Government and Whitehall thinking.
Councillor Diviani was proud of the council’s continuing cap on its charges to householders, reminding his audience that EDDC has the lowest Council Tax in Devon and is currently 15th lowest in the country and likely to be even lower in the coming year. He added:
I intend again to recommend we freeze our Members’ allowances for next year, as we cannot expect our people to understand why we should consider our circumstances to be any different from the majority of the population of East Devon.
Central Government Grant
Looking at support from Westminster, he said:
As a sparsely populated rural authority, we are penalised by the Government’s formula, whereby cities receive £130 per head more funding than we do. Local MP Neil Parish has been at the forefront in pressing the Government for fairer funding. With the devolution debate, there is plenty of talk about devolving more responsibilities to us. But wouldn’t it be nice to see the talk turned into action and with a devolution of finance and powers to the most efficient tier of government? DCLG have indicated that they expect us to move from government grant to self-sufficiency through the New Homes Bonus and retention of the NNDR – the business rate – but as usual the breakdown is not yet forthcoming.
Capital Developments and the New Growth Point
Turning to spending on capital projects, he continued:
A capital budget of £9.860m is proposed to be approved. The New Homes Bonus this year contributes £1.031m and, with the New Growth Point housing delivery accelerating, will augment the derisory interest return on our reserves. In the coming months we will see 1,000 homes in Cranbrook occupied, the new railway station built, and a new through school comprising a further Primary and the first Secondary, which will be completed ready for September. Playing fields and the gym will be made accessible to the community. The next challenge will be with 3,500 houses in stage 2 and the Town Centre.
SkyPark, Science Park and the new super computer at the Met Office are all proceeding, but these are still difficult times and the changes to the supermarket way of doing business – as also experienced on Honiton’s Heathpark and across the District – means we have to be flexible in our plans.
He was proud of his council’s record on supporting local businesses:
We pay 96% of invoices received by us within ten days, mostly to local firms. Better information from the LGA People & Places Board means we now know that over 50% of the Gross Value Added (GVA) in this country comes not from the urban conurbations, but from the non-metropolitan areas, so we will have to ensure we don’t hamper our rural economies and encourage them to grow in line with the NPPF.
Moving on to the much-discussed office move proposal, Councillor Diviani reiterated the proposal for two main centres at Honiton and Exmouth, with local surgeries operating the way they do now to continue serving our customers where they are.
He reminded his audience that a key feature of economic delivery was the planning function and referred to the draft Local Plan, currently going through the process of examination. He said:
Much has been made of the lack of a five-year land supply, which we have in common with many other planning authorities. All applications still need to be judged on their merits and conformity to both NPPF and the emerging Local Plan. Our record on appeals won was one of the best in the country at 75% – but in the last quarter we achieved 93%.
Still looking at the local economy, the Leader reflected that in 2012 visitors contributed nearly £270m to the East Devon economy and accounted for 12% of jobs in the district. He added:
We are at last catching up with and exceeding pre-recession levels. Second only to Plymouth, East Devon has the highest number of day visits and day visitors spend in the county.
Our approach to tourism is a practical one that focuses on providing the assets that will attract visitors, rather than tourism promotion in the abstract. Hence we invest in the infrastructure that attracts visitors, rather than in tourism teams or advertising. We also invest in facilities that benefit our own residents and attract our immediate neighbours – not least Exeter’s populace. Coast, Countryside and City is very much a theme that underpins our investment in the infrastructure and attractiveness of East Devon.
Emphasising the importance of supporting nature-based tourism and making the most of our landscapes and seascapes, he said:
Our investment in the Countryside and AONB Teams recognises the compelling case for access and enhancement of our nationally and internationally important landscape.
Last year we invested £360,000 in our countryside work. This support delivers all our staff costs, plus people-based activities such as public events, environmental education, volunteering, managing the SW Coast Path and also managing 12 Local Nature Reserves (including the Axe Wetlands & Cranbrook Country Park), promoting the AONBs as a tourism destination, and helping to deliver major funding programmes such as Making it Local.
We also contribute towards the Blackdown Hills AONB Partnership and the Exe Estuary Partnership. “This funding helps promote East Devon as a destination for nature-based tourism, such as the Axe Wetlands and also all our other Local Nature Reserves, the two AONBs and South West Coast Path. It helps to generate income into the local economy by promoting the outstanding natural environment we have in East Devon.
There was still support for the delivery of visitor information by investing financially or in kind in local provision such as Tourist Information Centres, which enhance the experience of visitors to our key towns and visitor locations.
He said EDDC looks to use its assets to generate renewal, investment and economic uplift. In 2013, the council sold a seafront site in Exmouth for a new 60 bed Premier Inn hotel, which will open soon. This, he said, will enhance the offer of holiday accommodation and attract new visitors to stay in Exmouth.
Receipts from the sale of the site are being used to take forward other regeneration activities within Exmouth and helping us to work with the private sector on delivering a prestigious watersports centre for the town and moving forward to the design phase for a new Mamhead Slipway.
In Seaton, construction of the long-awaited Seaton Jurassic visitor centre is now well underway. This £4m investment has attracted funding from local government partners, Heritage Lottery Fund, Coastal Communities Fund and other charitable funds. The centre will be fully open in spring 2016.
Councillor Diviani said:
Seaton Jurassic will be the Jurassic Coast’s newest and most exciting visitor experience and a unique journey back in time to experience the story of evolution, wildlife and geology. Seaton can now reap the benefits from its unique location as a gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and the Axe Estuary. It’s estimated that the centre will attract some 60,000 visitors a year, generating a huge boost to Seaton’s economy. This is what we do well and want to do more of.
The council was not resting on its laurels, despite an enviable record on raising recycling levels and reducing landfill. He added:
We have a budget that will continue our expansion of recycling. Iain Chubb and his team cover the district with our enhanced collection and we have seen collection levels rising to 44% and a reduction in waste going to landfill.
With the waste collection contract due for renewal in the coming year, our aspiration for kerbside collection of plastic and cardboard is likely to form an integral part of the tendering process. We have evaluated joint working with Teignbridge, Exeter and County but the value was to be found in disposal rather than collection. It remains an aspiration for the future – especially as our jointly-owned district IT company, Strata, is proving itself.
Culture is not overlooked either. The team at Honiton’s Thelma Hulbert Gallery (THG) were thrilled to receive an Arts Council Grant of £40,000 to continue and expand their award- winning work with schools and community groups (including hard to reach audiences). They have had a number of successes on the awards front and, as requested, have managed to reduce their dependency on grants from EDDC.
Last but by no means least, Councillor Diviani was proud of recent improvements in the provision of affordable housing. He said:
This is yet another tremendous success story, with this Conservative council building Council Houses again, helping us to reduce waiting times and homelessness.
Returning to the forthcoming year’s financial plan, the Leader said:
This budget is our continued defence against any economic downturn and ensuring we are well-placed to take advantage of any upturns in the economy, as and when they arise.
We recognise that the Public Sector needs to work more closely for the benefit of all by reducing our running costs, sharing services and systems, where a dedicated local team can best deliver. A prime example of this is the exploratory talks we are having about greater collaboration with Devon County, Exeter and Teignbridge.
Council Tax requirement
I recommend that the Council Tax requirement for 2015/16 be set at £6.73m, with a resulting Council Tax Band D of £121.78 – for a sixth consecutive year.
Chairman, officers and fellow members:
I should like to thank you all for your co-operation and input in the preparation of this budget. When we all work together, irrespective of political parties or febrile campaigning, we can all do the job we are elected to do and give the people of East Devon the best possible service at the lowest possible price; this is what we have done each year, every year and fully intend to continue so to do.