Last night (10 February) North Herts Council approved its budget for the 2022/23 financial year. From moving forward with rewilding projects to looking at options to extend our outdoor pools season, the council is working hard to deliver better services and provide value for money against a backdrop of financial pressures.
Following a petition, we have allocated £25k to work with user groups to investigate and implement potential extensions to the season of outdoor pools in Letchworth and Hitchin. This work will take place at the end of the 2022 season.
With fighting climate change top of our agenda, we have allocated £25k to work with Countryside Management Service (CMS) to implement additional wilding schemes, this means planting more wildflower seeds in specific areas of greenspace. Further wild areas in the district will increase local biodiversity and natural habitats, as well as give us cleaner air. We have also renegotiated our grounds maintenance contract with John O’Conner so we can be more environmentally friendly and save money at the same time. As a result, some highway verges will be cut less frequently in all four of our main towns of Letchworth, Hitchin, Baldock and Royston. With fewer vehicle journeys taking place, the move will dramatically reduce our carbon emissions, as well as boost efforts to increase local biodiversity.
From a capital point of view, we have already got £50k in the budget for a solar water heating system at Royston Leisure Centre, using energy from the sun to provide the majority of warmth for the pool, which will save money in the long run and reduce our carbon footprint. Looking ahead we are also planning to invest a further £500k in solar technology to provide electricity for Royston Leisure Centre, as well as North Herts Leisure Centre and Hitchin Swim Centre, helping to meet our goals for the council to be carbon neutral by 2030.
In addition, there is money in the budget to digitalise microfiche records, making them easier to access for both staff and residents, and we continue to move forward with automated services using artificial intelligence.
As well as new projects, the council has balanced its books for the everyday running of services. The ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – which we expect to have a continuing impact on parking and other income as well leading to increased costs – along with rising inflation including utilities, plus expected future cuts in central government funding, will all impact on what services we can provide in the future.
Ian Couper, Service Director for Resources, said: “We know some residents have been struggling and will continue to struggle with the rising costs of living this year. As a council, we too have to tighten our belts and have looked to see where we can reduce expenditure and/or increase our income, with as little impact on services as possible.
“Overall we have forecast that we will have to fund over £1.7m of additional expenditure and lost income in relation to Covid-19, and we are not getting any further contributions or funding from central government. All of that has been funded from council reserves, which affects how well we can deal with funding pressures in the future.
“The ongoing effects of the pandemic, rising inflation and hikes to energy and general running costs, plus the expectation of cuts in funding from central government, all impact on how we manage the council’s finances and use residents’ council tax. We continue to work hard to balance the books to ensure that the essential services we provide are not affected in the coming months and years.”