Barnet Council looks to NHS to help plug budget gap

Opposition councillor accuses Labour administration of “accounting trickery” with its latest savings plan, reports Grace Howarth, Local Democracy Reporter

Barnet Council is hoping the NHS can help it bridge some of the remaining £12million gap in its 2024/25 budget.

A recent report set out how the local authority planned to address its remaining budget gap for next year, having already identified £35m in savings to plug a £45m shortfall.

Among the savings proposed are cuts in adult social care and children’s social care spending of £2m and  £1m respectively, due to action taken to reduce “pressure” in those areas. 

Another potential budget saver is a £1.5m increase in payments from the NHS, which owes the council £10m in debt. However, the viability of these proposals was called into question during a cabinet meeting earlier this month.

Opposition Conservative councillor Peter Zinkin told the cabinet on 12th December he doubted the “robustness of the plan” as the savings relied on successful “negotiations” with the NHS and other bodies which lay outside council control.

Cllr Zinkin said: “The thing that strikes me is the number of quite large items that are not actual savings in terms of reductions in cost of services but are ‘accounting trickery’ where we’re turning income into capital.” 

He suggested he had low confidence in the council’s strategy, adding: “How much of the MTFS [medium term financial strategy] savings is actually from actions by the council to reduce cost?”

Council leader Barry Rawlings acknowledged there were some “difficult negotiations” ahead but said “money owed” in regards to the NHS was a “good thing”.

In terms of the in-house savings he trusted workers to “know the service”. 

He said: “There are items that are stretch targets, I don’t mind that. Will every saving be reached 100%? Maybe not, some may overachieve, some may underachieve.

“These [savings] have been tested through service directors, team leaders going through their own budget and presenting this as things they can achieve.”

Speaking on the NHS Cllr Rawlings added: “We’re asking the NHS for some of the money they owe us. I think that’s a different negotiating place to be.”

Cllr Zinkin persisted, saying the plan depended on the NHS working with the council in a way it “probably didn’t want to”.

But Cllr Rawlings said the council and the NHS shared a “commonality of interest” so working together would not be so difficult. The council leader said: “We want people to live as independently as possible and not spend longer times in hospitals, the hospitals want less people spending time in hospital.

“It’s getting an agreement on how to invest to make that happen. Some of this is negotiable, given the amount of money that can be saved on both sides this is only a small percentage of it.”

The Labour administration also expressed disappointment in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s “incredibly underwhelming” Autumn Statement in November, saying it failed to address “changes” needed to key services. 

Cabinet member for families Pauline Coakley-Webb said she was “livid” children’s services were not addressed and said: “I know children’s services was really expecting that there would be something in the autumn budget for that department [but] councils from what I can see got a big fat zero.

“It just makes me feel the government really doesn’t care one jot about councils.”

Cllr Coakley-Webb shared her disappointment in the withdrawal of the Household Support Fund, a grant that helps people buy food and pay for gas and electricity that is set to run out in March. 

She said across London councils it was agreed children’s services needed “more funding”.

Paul Edwards, cabinet member for adult social care, said the government failed to address the “serious crisis facing the social care sector”.

Cllr Edwards said: “It’s particularly disappointing that the chancellor of the exchequer is the former secretary for health and social care, you’d think he’d have a little bit more to announce about the pressures we’re under in adult services. 

“We’re facing huge increased costs particularly as a result of hospital discharge rates because of the pandemic.”

He added that Barnet was “30% higher” than the London average when it came to “hospital discharge rates”.  Cllr Edwards said this added to the “pressures” that had been facing the council since 2019.

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