Mission – To achieve a state of Happiness in Council Finances

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen and six, result happiness. 

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds and six, result misery.

Mr Micawber’s Principle from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Mr Micawber’s rules for personal finance are still cited. They rather disregard mortgages and credit, but they still have some worth. The one area in which the rule still pertains with absolute adherence is in local government finance.

The work on the Trafford Council budget is usually largely decided upon by this time of the year. It’s never been an easy task, but we would normally have made our choices and be ready to prepare for the February Budget Meeting of Council. Our choices this year are awful and they’re getting worse.

It’s not just in Trafford either. Strange words and numerals, ‘section 114’ have started to be heard regularly in news bulletins usually accompanied by the more familiar phrases, “council” and “bankruptcy”.

A Section 114 notice is not bankruptcy as a normal business would see it, but no one wants the commissioners in!

In the context of how private businesses manage their accounts, the circumstances of a council having to issue a Section 114 notice bear no resemblance to that of a business facing bankruptcy. It’s just one year where the council’s expenditure is forecast to exceed its projected income. For the chief officer of a council though it’s just about as bad as it can get!

Commissioners called in on a Section 114 notice, never use the poker!
(unless they have to)

Trafford needs to get itself into a position where it has sufficient income to cover the statutory functions it is obliged to provide in 2024/2025. It will have to do so either by increasing its income or by reducing that expenditure.

Sources of Council Income

Council Tax is the main source of income. Trafford has traditionally kept council low. Since 2010, the council’s ability to increase its council tax has been limited with a period of effective freeze followed by percentage caps on increases. As a consequence, if anything, Trafford has fallen further behind.

Nevertheless, despite the capping of council tax, the degree to which Trafford relies on Council Tax has increased. In 2008 council tax made up 55% of our income, this year it makes up 58% of our income. The Government has decreed extra responsibilities such as Public Health, but accompanied by lower levels of central funding.

Line graph comparing Trafford's Council Tax with England and GM average

Decline in Central Funding

Fees and Charges

Sales, Fees, Charges and Rents brought in £46m this year and I’m sure there’s an expectation to bring in more next year. The sale of council properties and assets is an exhaustive process. It can be counterproductive and increasing fees and charges beyond what the public will tolerate is a fool’s errand.

Undoubtedly, there’ll be some increases. For instance, I don’t have any explanation as to why we don’t charge for Sunday parking but it wouldn’t bring in huge amounts.

So, Council Tax has to go up again from April!

Our Income

We know that council tax will rise is schedule to rise by 4.99% including 2% dedicated to social care. On top of our council tax income, we’re granted various amounts from Government as well as Business Rates. By December our total funded spending was scheduled to be £212m.

The Government describes this figure as the Core Spending Power of a Council.

Our Spending

The latest published figures show a projected expenditure of £218m. This figure was included in November’s draft budget. It’s clearly out of date. However, whilst the leadership team were tasked with getting this figure down, we know that actually, the £218m figure has been growing. So it’s getting harder. The government has found another £500m nationally for social care but our share in Trafford won’t be enough on its own to bridge the gap.

If our Council Tax was at the average level in Greater Manchester we would not have this gap, but it would require Trafford to break the Government’s cap on Council Tax increases to get there.

We’re in an especially difficult position because our reserves are so low. We will have to use reserves in the current year.

Whilst the Tory Government has been using Local Government to carry so much of the austerity burden, I’m not expecting any future Labour Government to ride up over the hill and bestow their beneficence on Trafford. We are not in a good position.

I suspect we’ll have to make some painful choices, but we’ll get to a balanced budget. We need to get to a position that is sustainable for a few years and that’s going to be incredibly difficult.

Mr Micawber was wont to say “Something will Turn Up!”.

I don’t think it will!



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