OFFICIALS have doubts about whether £5m of Government grants will be enough to prop up Oxfordshire’s ailing public purse.

The money for Oxfordshire’s councils was announced as part of a £1bn fund overall for councils across England last week to help them with ongoing extra costs due to the pandemic.

In Oxfordshire, some of the local councils have already started making cuts to their budgets to make up for shortfalls, and the new cash will help pay for ongoing Covid costs.

But across the board the new grants will not be enough to cover all the financial damage expected this winter, with a spokesman for both South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Council describing the grant as ‘insufficient’ for the coming winter pressures.

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Councils are legally duty bound to make sure they balance their books each year, and if they cannot, then they often have to cut services they have provided before.

Councils across the UK have spent extra cash on services like housing the homeless, and lost money from things like making all their car parks free during the pandemic.

As the lockdown approached, Robert Jenrick, the Government’s secretary of state for housing, communities and local government promised council leaders their Covid costs would be fully reimbursed.

Oxford Mail:

Robert Jenrick

To that end, Government has been giving out grant funding to councils throughout the pandemic to help them continue services like social care for the elderly, housing the homeless, and looking after isolated and vulnerable people stuck in their homes due to lockdown.

In the fourth and latest round of funding announced on Thursday last week, to help them maintain local services, the Government is giving out a total of £1bn to councils.

A total of £900m of this is non-ringfenced funding, meaning councils can spend it however they like, and a further £100m is aimed at keeping public leisure centres afloat.

Out of the £900m, Oxfordshire’s councils will collectively receive more than £5m.

Oxfordshire County Council, which looks after social care services, highways, and libraries across the county will receive the bulk of this: £3,900,272.

A spokesman for the county council said they would not use the cash to reverse cuts they had made to this year’s budget but they would instead spend it on ongoing coronavirus-related costs, including extra spending on social care.

They said: “The costs and losses of income for the rest of the year remain uncertain, especially as we approach winter and a second spike. Therefore there are no changes proposed to the revised budget.”

The council voted to slash £15m out of its budget in September, which included paring down the amount spent on a study to reintroduce services to support young people.

Out of the different district councils in Oxfordshire, two are set to receive more money than others: Oxford City Council will get £575,737 and Cherwell District Council will get £316,922.

This is likely because they had larger budget shortfalls than the other areas of Oxfordshire, partly as both Cherwell and Oxford had lost out from rent on their commercial properties, something they invested in over the last few years.

The city council is facing a £24m shortfall due to Covid, and though Government grants are slowly closing this gap, it is still facing an ‘extremely challenging’ future.

Cherwell made cuts to its budget in September, and also used some of its savings to fill its shortfall, but it is again facing extra costs of £3.454m, which it said the new grant will help to address.

And the other three district councils, Vale of White Horse, South Oxfordshire, and West Oxfordshire, will all receive the minimum amount in the latest round of funding: £100,000.

A spokesman for both South and Vale, which share all their back office staff, said: “This funding may be insufficient if a second wave leads to a greater than forecast increase in COVID related work and costs over the winter.”

According to the latest budget shortfall forecasts, Vale had lost out on an extra £581,000 due to Covid, and Vale an extra £409,000.

But both councils used their savings, known as reserves, to balance the books.

The council spokesman said if it had not done this, then the new funding from Government would not cover its extra spending.

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They said: “Unfortunately it does not address our budget shortfall and therefore in effect has already been ‘spent’ so in a practical sense it is not ‘new cash’, it has though been badged that way by Government.

“The funding of £100k will still leave us with a significant budget shortfall that will have to be addressed via our reserves, in line with the recent Council decision. A second wave may place further pressure on our budget position and increase our costs further.”

A West Oxfordshire District Council spokesman declined to reveal its current budget shortfall as it was constantly subject to change.

It is unclear how the £100m for leisure centres will be divided up across English councils yet.

Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick MP said: “Since the start of the pandemic, we have backed local councils with the funding they need to support their communities, protect vital services and recover lost income.

“This extra £1 billion funding will ensure that councils have the resources that they need over the winter and continue to play an essential role on the front line of our response to the virus while protecting the most vulnerable and supporting local businesses.”