Wigan Council battles to close budget gap

Wigan Town Hall
Wigan Town Hall

Town hall bosses continue to face major challenges in social care and waste disposal as they bid to balance Wigan Council’s books.

The latest cabinet meeting heard the local authority had a £4.245m gap in its revenue budget at the end of the second quarter.

This was due to “streamlining and transformation” projects falling behind and huge pressures on some of the authority’s departments facing spiralling demand for services and cost increases.

However, the borough’s political leaders were told a number of one-off initiatives will enable the council to break even by the end of the financial year.

Some of the biggest difficulties faced are in children’s and families’ services, which half way through the financial year was £2.49m down.

Most of the costs relate to looked-after youngsters, with the council picking up a bill of £2.5m in external accommodation costs and shelling out £350,000 on places for care leavers to live.

However, the cabinet was told the current position is an improvement on the £4.7m financial hole reported at the end of 2017-18.

A business delivery board has also been set up to speed up changes in the sector and manage spending to get the budget into a healthier place.

Funds for helping children with high levels of need in their education are also under pressure, with the budget £1.3m down.

The biggest overspends are on special schools, with a £500,000 funding gap, education health care plans (EHC plans) which are costing £400,000 more than planned and independent school provision which has the same-sized fiscal issue.

The cabinet heard demand for EHC plans is going up, with the council currently handling almost 1,800 of them.

The situation is also becoming more difficult as the Government pushes for more educational rigour in mainstream schools.

The report reads: “We have experienced a large increase in demand for special schools and due to capacity issues this has resulted in the use of more independent schools.

“These are common issues across most local authorities as schools are becoming less inclusive and struggling to manage the increase in special educational needs.”

The environment directorate is also pulling out the stops to balance the books by the end of the financial year and wipe out a £1.53m budget hole.

More than £1m of this alone is due to the difficult conditions relating to getting rid of the borough’s rubbish.

The report stated: “Due to changes in the recycling market in recent years dry recyclable waste disposal is now a cost to the council when previously this generated income, there is no budget for this cost placing considerable pressure on the budget.

“Despite much effort to ensure residents recycle correctly, contamination of paper waste continues to be an issue with costs of £0.13m incurred to the end of September.”

The waste department is also facing unbudgeted agency costs of £390,000, higher-than-expected outlay on transport and delays to the new system of charging residents to replace lost or wrecked bins.

The report stressed one-off corporate initiatives will help to balance the books by the end of this financial year but warned the major areas of the council should do whatever was possible to reduce pressure.