A BUDGET black hole totalling millions in Oxfordshire's public purse will be filled with a 'careful and measured' approach to saving money.

Councils across the UK suffered from huge budget shortfalls during the coronavirus lockdown due to a mix of losing out on income from car parks, fines and fees, and spending extra money on services.

The Government had promised to honour councils' Covid overspends, but all councils are still facing budget shortfalls, even after grants from Westminster.

Oxfordshire County Council is due to hold an 'extraordinary' budget meeting next Tuesday, with the aim of plugging a £16m gap in the public purse.

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David Bartholomew, the county council’s cabinet member for finance, said: “We are proposing to take a careful and measured approach and are seeking to protect frontline services as much as we can."

He added councils across the UK had gone the 'extra mile' during the lockdown and now found themselves in the position of covering a 'significant proportion of the cost for this'.

Banbury Cake:

David Bartholomew

Mr Bartholomew added: “While ensuring we meet our legal duty to balance our budget, we are continuing to work with councils across England to call on the Government for further funding for councils at this critical time.”

The original net budget for 2020/21 was set in February at £476m.

The council had originally expected a shortfall of £64m due to the lockdown, but has revised this to £51m.

It has received £31m from the government in the form of grants, and a scheme to help it recoup lost costs will pay out an estimated £4m.

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Some of the savings measures the council is taking to plug the remaining £16m gap are passive.

For example, because staff have mostly been working at home, it is estimated that £306,000 will be saved on utility bills at council offices, while £400,000 is expected to be saved because of reduced travel, stationery and expenses.

Other measures require delays to council projects including work on 'redesigning' children's services, which was set to cost £200,000; the council will spend £25,000 on this in the 2020/21 financial year and delay the remaining £175,000.

A £500,000 pot of money for transport projects will now be charged to the council's capital budget, usually reserved for big building projects.

Oxfordshire's Fire and Rescue Service is also delaying plans to replace its diesel fire engines with electric-powered vehicles, saving £200,000.

The council's Conservative leader Ian Hudspeth has warned that setting budgets in future years would likely be 'extremely challenging' because of the likelihood of a second wave of coronavirus.

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Ian Hudspeth

He said: “The possibility of a second wave of the virus later this year, particularly if combined with a flu epidemic, would also place a huge strain on existing resources, especially if lockdown is required and services have to be stood down again.

“Moreover, there may well be significant costs in future years arising from COVID as a result of reduced business rates and council tax. When we get to winter and need to set a budget for 2021/22 and beyond, it is likely to be extremely challenging."

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Mr Hudspeth added that a plan set to be debated in parliament in autumn about changes to councils may contain solutions to help local government recover from Covid-19.

He said: "The Government is producing a white paper in the autumn about local recovery and the shape of local government across England. It will be interesting to see what emerges from that, and Oxfordshire’s councils are already engaging with each other in anticipation of that white paper.”

The council's performance scrutiny committee will discuss the changes to the budget when it meets on Thursday.