As a part of the annual budget consultation process chamber members had the opportunity to put forward their questions and views on the proposed North East local council budgets.
Throughout January members sat down with councils for Newcastle City, South Tyneside, North Tyneside, Sunderland and Gateshead to get an understanding of the current successes and struggles of balancing the local budgets, ask questions about concerns and give constructive input for plans moving forward.
It’s easy to guess the overarching themes of the consultations. Each council stated issues with increased social care costs with the North East mostly being above the national average for number of adults in population requiring social support. This increase across the board has seen each council explore innovative ways of saving and raising money.
Sunderland Council have discussed their ideas for piloting their own in-house social housing scheme, allowing them to potentially claw back some of the costs they currently expend on outsourcing the contract. They were honest about the lack of business engagement previously seen in Sunderland, but members gave very positive comments about the progress made. In an attempt to raise the value of the Sunderland Pound, local procurement has become a focus, with more local employers winning business from the council. South Tyneside saw local businesses bring up this point too, with suggestions made by members on how spending local brings future benefits.
Newcastle City Council were questioned by members as to whether being a part of a Combined Authority (North of Tyne Combined Authority) enabled them to share best practice in regard to finding better ways of working. They confirmed although the authority would see long term benefits, it was too complex to benchmark against other councils with different concerns.
Climate change and sustainability are emerging as the big topics. Gateshead and Newcastle are looking for ways to hit the agreed carbon-zero targets without costs affecting businesses disproportionately. Sustainable, affordable housing for residents, encouraging people to live and work in the region, are planned to be built across the region.
There is a distinct level of uncertainty regarding Brexit and what the new government will mean for the region, however. Although not too much is set to change in the immediate period following the exit from the European Union, councils are worried about the years following 2020/21. If Government is serious about closing the gap between the North East and rest of the UK, it should work with businesses and councils to deliver the certainty they long for.