Government team welcomes progress to address ‘cost of covid’

Cabinet councillors have agreed to progress a series of recommendations that will help address the huge financial impact of the covid pandemic on council finances.

The UK lockdown in March 2020 put an instant freeze on tourism and other income streams, at the same time council spending rocketed to ensure the most vulnerable residents received the support they needed.

A review by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA) welcomed the council’s early intervention in addressing the crisis and is supportive of the work already done through a recovery and reset programme to find savings and increased levels of income. The government-appointed accountants said the council had ‘strong officer understanding, leadership and grip of the issues’ and recognised the risk to finances ‘early, taking a number of steps to prevent the threat’.

Councillor David Tutt, Leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, said: “In my many years as a politician and proud resident of this wonderful town, there have been mercifully few occasions when local events have caused me such deep upset and concern as has the catastrophe of the last two years.

“The cost of covid has been horrendous, the loss of life is most tragic of all, with so many loved ones taken far too soon.  I also saw businesses left on their knees, particularly in our hospitality and service sectors, with jobs lost and families struggling to make ends meet.

“We had to take some incredibly tough and painful decisions to reduce our costs, particularly across our tourism department, so while I am grateful that CIPFA has recognised that we were quick to act, it gave me no pleasure to see a number of people leave the organisation.”

The council achieved savings of £2.4m in 2021/22 and aims to deliver another £3.2m in 2022/23, meaning the emergency borrowing agreed with government is now less than first anticipated.  To offset this borrowing, CIPFA has recommended that the council reviews the value of property and land owned by the authority and becomes less reliant on tourism income.

Councillor Tutt said: “It should be remembered that when the government stopped funding local councils, we did start diversifying, we had no choice. We invested in a mix of commercial and residential schemes and the revenue they generate is fundamental to maintaining frontline services. But, we are a seaside resort and tourism will always be a fundamental component of our financial planning.

“We also have a well developed asset management plan in place and will use that to underpin our assessment of opportunities to get the most value from property and land we own. It’s no secret that we own sites that will be attractive to developers, but they have to be in the right place and deliver what we need locally, such as affordable housing for young families in the town.”