National and Devolved Politics

10.07.18

Future of Torbay Council to be decided before September, mayor says

The future of Torbay Council as a unitary council is set to be decided before September by the authority, the elected mayor has said.

Speaking to Devon Live, mayor Gordon Oliver said the council “cannot survive” on current funds, adding that he had been meeting with Local Government Association officials and from other councils to discuss the future of the south coast authority.

An options report on the future of Torbay Council’s status as a unitary authority will be presented before the council by September.

The move was backed by Conservatives and introduced by Oliver after he claimed he was not crying wolf when there “is no money left.” Liberal Democrats opposed the move, however; the party’s leader, Cllr Steve Darling, told Devon Live that the last-minute revelation was “madness” and “not the way to run a council.”

 No decision has yet been made on the mayor’s proposal, with Torbay’s chief executive Steve Parrock currently reviewing all options for local government reorganisation. But one Conservative Torbay MP, Kevin Foster, told the local paper that while he did not agree with a return to the former two-tier structure, he did think Dorset’s recent decision to become two unitary authorities could prompt a similar debate in Devon.

Oliver said from 2020 the council would have to make savings of up to £12m, and that merging services into a unitary status was the only way to maintain the area’s services.

Its budget monitoring for 2017-18 already indicated choppy waters ahead as the authority reported an overspend of almost £2m, primarily as a result of pressures on children’s social care.

“We cannot survive as we are beyond this next financial year. There is no money," Oliver told the paper. “There is a realisation among the Conservative councillors that we cannot carry on as we are. We are struggling like hell.”

The news comes as the County Councils Network issued a statement calling on the government to urgently inject more money into local government ahead of next year’s Spending Review, with several council leaders fearing an inability to balance the books in the coming years despite their legal duty to do so. Many are expecting to dip into their cash reserves, much like the once-bankrupt Northamptonshire has done.

A Torbay Council spokesperson said: “Due to ongoing austerity in the public sector and the substantial reduction by Government to the Local Government Revenue Support Grant in particular, the outlook for Torbay’s public services continues to be extremely challenging.

“Torbay, a small coastal unitary authority created in 1999, has a funding gap of £14.7m which needs to be met by 2021/22. Given that previous reductions in the revenue budget, partially offset by efficiency savings and the creation of integrated services with partner organisations, have already reduced expenditure by £70m or 40% of the revenue budget, the scale of the future challenge is clear. There are also considerable demand pressures with the current social care system which could widen that gap further.

“Torbay Council has asked its Chief Executive to review whether an alternative local government model could help bridge the funding gap. It is clearly important that Torbay Council has a sustainable medium term financial plan and is able to appropriately fund local services, ranging from waste collection to protecting vulnerable adults and children.”

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