DOUBLE digit council tax increases, spread over a number of years, are being predicted as Dorset Council battles against inflation.

Also likely is that most fees and charges will increase by around 5 per cent in the coming financial year.

More services are also likely to be switched online as a way of saving money – making council tax payers fill in their own forms.

One of the areas being actively targeted for immediate savings is school transport for children with additional educational or physical needs, where there is already a £7 million overspend.

An internal “summit” was held last week involving around seventy council staff to try and find ways of reducing costs within the service. One idea being looked at is shared pick-up points in some areas, or persuading parents to find ways of taking their children to school, rather than school transport going from house to house.

Opposition councillors say they have seen a “sea change” in the ruling Conservative group’s attitude to the immediate and medium-term budgets, acknowledging the problems the council could be facing in the years to come.

The Conservatives say they are already facing up to the problems and, in the longer-term, are looking for wholesale changes in the way the authority is run to make it even more cost-effective.

Weymouth councillor David Gray told a meeting on Tuesday that the four-year record of the ruling party to date was little to be proud of.

“If we look back at those four years this council has spent nearly £22 million from reserves to prop up budgets which haven’t been achieved… our reserves will shrink by £33 to £34 million in the term of this council which isn’t a great record,” he said.

“Isn’t it time for a fundamental change in the way we do things? It seems to me we chase savings every single year at the expense of trying to do a better job… we need a big change, we simply cannot go on like this.”

Finance portfolio holder Gary Suttle told the meeting that is was unlikely that the Government would help, whatever party was in power, and that left Dorset Council to find its own solutions.

He described the £600,000 given in Rate Support Grant to the council by the Government last year as “an insult”, adding that he doubted if it would get any more generous.

Cabinet member Byron Quayle (Blandford) said he agreed with the scenario but said that, unlike other councils, Dorset did have a culture of getting on with the job and dealing with issues.

The council is currently rating its own financial risk situation as “high” with a warning that more reserve funds might have to be used to balance the books by the end of the year – and again in the 2024-25 financial year, despite what the Conservative group claim is £96 million of savings already having been achieved since the council was formed in 2019.

Current predictions project that the authority could be £12 million short of the money it needs for day-to-day spend by April 2024 with above budget spending in both children’s and adult services and in the Place directorate.

Said a report to the meeting by corporate director for finance and commercial activities Sean Cremer: “The operating environment for local authorities across the UK remains challenging given the ongoing impact through the recovery phase of the pandemic as well as international conflict driving inflation. These external factors are bringing pressure to bear through increased demand, rising costs and reducing funding. As a result effective control and monitoring of activities and budgets has never been more important.”