Herts county council 2016/17 budget hasn’t been swallowed by St Albans’ sinkhole

Exposed services in the sink hole

Exposed services in the sink hole - Credit: Archant

Repairing St Albans’ large sinkhole has not made a huge dent on the county council’s bottom line, according to the councillor in charge of the authority’s finances.

Ahead of the full council meeting to finalise the budget for 2016/17 on Tuesday (23), Cllr Chris Hayward told the Herts Advertiser that the 12-metre wide sinkhole, which swallowed a chunk of Fontmell Close on October 1 last year, has cost £500,000 to date for surveying work and road repairs.

The council’s portfolio holder for resources said: “We have made a joint bid with St Albans district council for a government grant to reimburse us for that cost, which at the moment we have met with no direct impact on the budget for the coming year.”

When it comes to the new Harpenden secondary school, proposed to be built on farmland in Batford, Cllr Hayward said that construction costs would be met by the Education Funding Authority.

However, its construction hinges on gaining permission to build on the Green Belt site.

Although earlier this year the council exchanged contracts with the land owners to buy the 42.8 acre farm, the contract is conditional on planning approval, and the price agreed for the site has not as yet been publicly released.

Cllr Hayward said: “We have budgeted to acquire the land. A planning application has to be submitted, and we have to push on with that as hard as we can. We hope to submit that to the district council by summer.”

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On Tuesday, the council approved a 3.99 per cent overall increase in its precept, two per cent of which is earmarked for adult social care.

Cllr Hayward said the latter tax was ‘ringfenced’ solely for that purpose.

Savings have been made by “stripping out £211 million of waste”, especially when negotiating contracts.

Staff numbers have been slashed too, with “1,000 staff taken out of the organisation over the past five years”.

Cllr Hayward said that while residents were unlikely to welcome a 1.99 per cent increase in the county council’s portion of their overall bill, along with an additional two per cent social care levy, the authority had to increase the precept and make “unpalatable decisions” to cope with the £39 million funding shortfall it initially faced after the government dramatically cut its grant.

As a result, he added, “residents may find changes to services. It is getting harder and harder to make efficiency gains, particularly as we have been doing that over the past five years already.

“This has been the toughest budget we have faced so far. So, the idea that austerity is over in Herts is far from the truth. It is challenging, as a lot of what we do is statutory.

“We have been working closely with other organisations, like the NHS and other public sector partners on ways to save money and deliver the same services at a lower cost.”

Other ways in which the council has been considering making savings is by maximising the use of its assets such as co-locating services on its sites so that organisations are sharing accommodation.

Cllr Hayward explained: “This is very likely to happen. We are having a complete review of our properties, some of which could be considered as surplus.”