The Strategic Lead Finance, and the Service Lead Revenues and Benefits, provided clarification and response to questions from Members in relation to the service plan for the service for 2022-23.
For the Finance team, work for the coming year would include:
· Preparation of a new Procurement Strategy for Member approval, emphasising the Council’s objective to be carbon neutral by 2040;
· Revision of the Investment Strategy to align with the Council’s objective to be carbon neutral by 2040;
· Production of a Digital Strategy for Members consideration, with a view to an improved digital service for customers and creating efficiencies for the Council;
· Producing the statutory 2021-22 Statement of Accounts;
· Implementing a new financial system with improved efficiencies and reporting capabilities.
For the Revenues and Benefits team, work for the coming year would include:
· Reviewing the Council Tax Reduction scheme;
· Updating the Corporate Fraud and Compliance Strategy to reflect high risk areas of lost income;
· Undertaking further measures to improve business rates and sundry debtor income collection levels;
· Implementing online services including automation to reduce paper bills issued and create more efficient ways of working;
· Carrying out a review of the telephony within the Customer Service Centre;
· Continuing to develop a poverty dashboard to give greater insight into the impact of poverty within the district;
· The team had been contacted by the District Councils’ Network over its work around financial resilience; the Network was very keen for the team to join a focus group session with the Department for Work and Pensions, as one of only eight district councils on that working group.
The Portfolio Holder for Finance thanked the Finance team for their very good work, remarking on the considerable work involved in delivering government grants within specified timescales and commending the team for having met targets every single time.
Clarification and responses included:
· Some Members raised that not everyone could access digital services, due to disability or lack of internet access or equipment, and asked whether information was available in hard copy, on request. The Strategic Lead Finance confirmed that people could make contact by phone and documents in hard copy would be produced, if required;
· In respect to the audit, a Member commented on difficulties with the auditor’s timelines and asked if the team had enough resilience to account for delays. The Strategic Lead Finance stated that Finance was a small team and the audit coincided with the budget process, which was another key element of work. In pre-empting the challenges, the budget process had been started earlier to get standard calculations out of the way and free up the team for when the auditors come in;
· Comment was made that the introduction of new IT systems could go very wrong; was there enough contingency built in for the team to cope in the event of problems with the new finance system? The Service Lead Finance responded that Strata had put together a careful business case concerning the budget required to implement the new system and there would be a stringent testing process carried out before the new system went live and the old system turned off;
· A question was asked about whether the Investment Strategy included the pension fund. The Strategic Lead Finance reported that the pension fund was not included within the Council’s policies and strategies since it was administered by Devon County Council and Peninsula Pensions; East Devon DC did exert pressure, however, to ensure that investments were in the right place to address the carbon reduction programme;
· Members remarked on the considerable rise in costs of providing emergency accommodation for the homeless; comment was made that there should be a key objective in the Finance service plan around working with the Housing service to review this issue. The Strategic Lead Housing & Environment and the Strategic Lead Finance agreed that wording could be included in the Finance service plan to this effect;
· A Member commented that when major financial difficulties arise for people, matters can escalate quickly. They questioned: i) were the Revenues & Benefits team able to identify when people were showing early warning signs of financial stress and were at risk of homelessness?; and ii) given they had lost two full-time equivalent staff members, were they adequately resourced in the event of an upturn in threatened homelessness? The Service Lead Revenues & Benefits stated that the poverty dashboard enabled the Financial Resilience team to identify issues in a holistic way and intervene early and proactively. Early communications around missed council tax payments were softer, to encourage early engagement with people, and more joined-up working had been developed across teams and with Citizens Advice. With these measures in place, a sudden upturn in threatened homelessness was unlikely, and resourcing problems were not anticipated.
Recommended to Cabinet by the Overview and Scrutiny Committees that the Service Plan 2022-23 for the Finance service be adopted, subject to:
· Inclusion of a Key Service Objective for the Finance service to work with the Housing service to review the rise in costs of providing temporary accommodation for the homeless.