The Director for Finance, the Assistant Director Revenues and Benefits and the Finance Manager provided clarification and response to questions from Members in relation to the service plan for the service for 2023-24.
The Portfolio Holder for Finance remarked on the volume and breadth of work that is covered, commenting on the challenges that are presented, and the achievements. He thanked the Finance and Revenues & Benefits teams for their hard work.
For the Finance team, work for the coming year would include:
· Implementation of the Financial Sustainability Model; this work is critical in terms of balancing the budget going forward and ensuring effective and efficient delivery of services. Progress will be reported to Members through the Budget Setting and Capital Allocations Panel, with minutes going on to Cabinet.
· Working with Devon Procurement Services to develop a matrix of activities to embed practices in the Council’s procurement processes to reduce the carbon footprint, in line with the Procurement Strategy 2022-2027 adopted by Members.
· Implementation of new Finance System. The Finance Manager explained that this is a major project that will touch all areas of the Council; the system will facilitate better reporting and budget monitoring, with user friendly dashboards and the ability to better identify trends. Exeter City Council (ECC) and Teignbridge District Council (TDC) will be on the same system, enabling closer working between the three authorities.
For the Revenues and Benefits team, work for the coming year would
· Poverty Strategy – to continue to develop the Poverty Dashboard to drive the Council’s response to help residents with the cost of living crisis.
· Development and approval of the Household Support Fund 3 and Discretionary Fund.
· Council Tax Reduction Scheme – currently a revised, more generous scheme is being proposed which will lift the lowest income households out of paying council tax altogether. If approved, the new scheme will be implemented leading up to 2023/24.
· Implementation of Business Rates Revaluation and government schemes announced in the Autumn budget.
· Carrying out a review of telephony across the Council to ensure efficient and streamlined processes and high standards of customer service.
· Carrying out feasibility with ECC Revenues & Benefits Service on exploring opportunities for partnership working/scoping how services can be better aligned.
Clarification and responses included:
· Whilst this Council has a regular relationship with ECC and TDC in terms of shared IT systems, TDC uses different Revenues and Benefits software to that used by this Council and ECC, therefore synergies are closer with ECC. ECC have been proactive in approaching this Council with a view to closer partnership working, and the Assistant Director Revenues & Benefits will be meeting with her counterpart in ECC imminently, to start these conversations.
· The Director for Finance assured Members that sharing computer systems with ECC and TDC does not increase risks of hacking, since data are already held on the same servers, and the same controls and processes through Strata are in place.
· A Member sought to understand where the automations and efficiencies will come in with the new finance system, given that there will be other multiple systems feeding into the main finance system. He asked whether officers would have overview and authorisation of certain transactions, to mitigate risk from errors. The Director for Finance confirmed that key controls around reconciliations and hierarchy of authorisations are already in place, and will remain in place with the new system. The benefits of the new system are mainly around the ability to report, and procurement. The efficiencies arise from all three authorities designing the finance system together, with development of the same systems and process, meaning that the specialist accountants from the authorities can work together, thereby mitigating against risk of failure.
· It is expected that local councils will continue to be used to deliver funding schemes brought forward by central government, given that district councils in particular are well placed to adapt and get payments out quickly to local residents. Grants are now targeting cost of living, and no further funding is expected in relation to the Covid pandemic.
· The Council does receive funding to cover the costs of administering funding schemes announced by central government, but there is a significant time lag on this being received.
· This Council has a positive track record relative to some other councils in managing the challenges of delivering funding schemes, with the right skills sets, a lot of experience and an agile workforce. The service is therefore able to flex and prioritise and deprioritise work in order to deliver, without reliance on agencies.
· One Member asked if this year’s Council Tax and rent increases will mean that more households become eligible for 100% Council Tax reduction. The Assistant Director Revenues & Benefits explained that the Council Tax Reduction Scheme does not take account of expenditure but looks at income to determine which band households fall into. She added that band widths had been revised to allow for the rise in benefits in line with inflation.
· A lot of work takes place to support households with financial resilience and working with trusted partners to try to remove barriers for households in poverty to access support.
Recommended to Cabinet by the Overview and Scrutiny Committees
that the Service Plan 2023-24 for the Finance service be adopted.