Dorset Council finishes financial year in healthier position than expected – but there are concerns for the future

DORSET Council ended the last financial year in a better position than expected – although there is concern about the costs of rising inflation on this year’s budget. 

A report to Cabinet says that the authority finished the year almost as planned, despite warnings of potential overspends. 

However, the figures for many areas mask an underlying problem – that of unfilled vacancies and the difficulty in recruiting in a low-wage, high-cost county. 

Some of the underspends reported for the year are because services could not be provided due to staff shortages, although other reasons feature as well. 

Dorset Travel topped the list in total terms for overspending – by £1.56million, largely caused by increased costs in getting children with health and additional educational needs to and from school, or other placements. 

One of the other big overspending departments during the year was planning, which was £967,000 above its budget. 

The report to councillors says: “The planning service has experienced a number of financial issues in 2021/22 including unachieved savings, shortfalls against income targets and difficulties with recruitment resulting in high agency (outside staff) costs.” 

One of the best performing departments is waste, which ended the year £2.5million better off mainly because of higher prices being paid for recycled materials.

Although £824,000 overspent, the children’s services end of year figure is said to be positive for a demand-led directorate although 1.15% beyond the predicted out-turn.  

Also highlighted is an underspend of £1.38million for in-house fostering, although this is largely due to be unable to recruit enough foster carers despite on-going campaigns and an increasing number of Dorset foster parents now being at, or beyond, normal retirement age. 

For adult service and housing the overspend at the end of the financial year is shown as £2.2million – less than two per cent of the overall budget, although there has been a disproportionate increase in care package payments as more people develop complex needs and as a result of COVID-19. 

Despite this the report says there was an underspend of just over £1million on the adult care budget – largely attributed to unfilled vacancies across the directorate, particularly within locality and specialist teams. 

A further £600,000 underspend is reported on commissioning, largely attributed to unfilled staff vacancies. 

Housing was overspent by almost £300,000 mainly caused by bad debts. 

Also underspending was public health services where £706,000 not used from the £25m annual shared budget (with BCP council) will be added to reserves. 

Other underspending departments include customer services, archives and libraries collectively ending the year £487,000 underspent;  corporate development £480,000; legal and democratic £324,000; environment and wellbeing £224,000; community and public protection £82,000. 

Smaller underspends, below £15,000 in each case, were reported for human resources, digital and change, ICT and the chief executive’s office. 

Executive director for corporate development Aidan Dunn said that although the year, generally, ended well there could be trouble ahead with inflation still rising.

“The medium term continues to be of concern. 2021/22 concluded in a much better financial position than had been anticipated, and despite the short-term risk being downgraded from high to medium in the budget strategy paper, since then, inflationary pressures have been building in the economy and the council will need to manage this as effectively as possible,” he commented.

By Local Democracy Reporter Trevor Bevins

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