Dorset Council hopes to be setting a realistic budget for next year – but one which will still carry risks of over-spending.

Despite extra millions from the Government local people will be expected to find a four per cent hike in Dorset Council’s share of the council tax.

Once police and fire services are added in, together with some town and parish council precepts, many of us are likely to be paying 5 per cent more from the spring.

After a year where both adult and children’s services were badly overspent the council is pushing more money into both for 2020/21 – an extra £11.7m proposed for adult services and £10.3m for children.

But councillors heard on Monday that even with the extra cash the council could easily still end up with an overspend.

Cllr Andrew Parry, Cabinet member for children’s services, said that with the best will and even looking at past trends and population projections it was impossible to accurately forecast for demand-led services.

He admitted that an £800,000 contingency built in next year’s budget for residential placements could easily be blown out of the water by just two children with exceptional needs, or another batch of unexpected but less complex cases.

“We are going into the budget period with our eyes wide open – whatever scenario we look at there is likely to be an element of risk…if we find ourselves with an unexpected ten high cost cases we will, once again, find ourselves under pressure,” he told a scrutiny committee meeting in Dorchester on Monday afternoon.

He said that while people used to think they were not listened to the new council had “an absolute commitment to engage with our communities and our partners.”

He said part of this would involve cutting down on the procedures which had to be gone through to get a child additional funding for health and education needs. He said this was being cut from a maximum of 47 processes to 12 and that agreements on special educational need transport should soon be decided in 4-6 weeks, rather than the previous three months.

In the current financial year (2019-20) the council is currently forecasting an overspend of £8.2m on directly controlled budgets, and £6.5m on funding for schools and education. It says this overspend is largely due to what it describes as “unprecedented and growing levels” of demand for social care services.

Opposition councillors have said that the Tory-controlled council were simply unrealistic when they set this year’s budget, paying more attention to what they wanted to happen, rather than what was actually happening.

The authority has since been helped by being given an extra £6million in grants from the Government, mainly for social care spending, and has made more than £10million in savings this year from its transformation programme alone – mainly by shedding jobs.

Departments will have to make savings

Monday’s committee heard that even with the extra cash from the Government and the extra income from rises in the council tax and the savings being made, every department at Dorset Council will have to continue to make efficiencies– including social services.

Weymouth councillor Gill Taylor was critical of this with children’s services about to undergo a re-organisation. She told the committee that, for social services, change should be driven by better service, not by the need to cut budgets.

It had previously been said that the change exercise could save £1m in the short-term and make bigger savings as new ways of working were introduced.

Interim executive director of children’s services Theresa Leavy told Cllr Taylor than most of the savings would come by a reduction in management posts and by reducing duplication of some tasks, rather than front-line workers.

The committee heard that the council tax increase and rise in other income will not fully cover the forecast increased social care costs, so in order to balance the budget Dorset Council will need to continue making substantial reductions in its expenditure while trying not to affect the delivery of frontline services.

The coming year is also likely to see the sale of many council properties and an increase in some charges – including an expected ‘rationalisation’ of car parking fees across the area. The council is also hoping for a £3m reduction on expenditure through procurement with additional savings on insurance and financial fees.

The council’s proposed net expenditure budget for 2020-21 is £305m which will next be discussed at a Cabinet meeting on January 28 and at the full Council meeting on February 18 for final approval.