John Hart, leader of Devon County Council writes for this title.

This is my first column of 2024 and I wish you, your friends and family a slightly belated Happy New Year.

A lot of people will have been glad to see the back of 2023 and with the appalling conflict in the Middle East and Putin's continuing war on Ukraine, the international situation doesn't currently look hopeful.

But regular readers of this column may have realised that my glass is usually half full and, in my role as leader of Devon County Council, I am very hopeful that the prospects for 2024 are quite bright.

Firstly, we remain confident that we can negotiate a successful devolution deal with the Government to bring more powers and extra cash to Devon and our partners in Torbay.

I have always maintained that most local services are better provided locally by people who know their patch and are democratically accountable. This would give us greater ability to act on a range of issues including housing, training and skills and economic regeneration for the benefit of the people we serve.

Secondly, we are currently negotiating with the Government on extra financial support for our services for our most vulnerable children - those with special educational needs and disabilities. Ten years ago the Government extended our responsibilities to include individuals up to the age of 25 rather than 16 or 18. The principles behind this were sound but we did not receive anywhere near the extra funding that was required for the many hundreds more young people we were expected to help and support. A successful conclusion to these negotiations will finally recognise this situation, which affects almost all top tier councils like Devon.

Last, but most certainly not least, we are beginning the official run-up to setting our budget next month. Obviously a massive amount of work has already gone on behind the scenes to enable us to publish our spending targets but we are now consulting on our plans.

You may have seen national and local coverage in the media about councils "declaring bankruptcy". That phrase is a huge simplification. Councils can't technically go bankrupt but they can declare what's called a Section 114 which effectively means they can't do anything other than cover their basic legal responsibilities.

Despite what some of my political opponents have claimed, I am happy to repeat that Devon is not - I repeat again not - going down this road.

Our plans - if approved by the council - are for a balanced budget that will see a well above inflation increase in spending of 10.4 per cent on our most vulnerable children along with an above inflation six per cent extra for adult services and 4.7 per cent extra for climate change, environment and transport.

There will have to be spending reductions in other departmental budgets to balance this extra cash injection and I am sure there will be arguments about this. But the job of a leader is ultimately about taking tough choices and - as long as I am leader - I will ensure our top priority is protecting the young, the old and the vulnerable.

All this means is that we are proposing an overall rise of 6.3 per cent in the council's spending for next year with a total revenue budget of over £743 million. We will have a separate capital budget for 2024/25 for building and infrastructure improvements and that will also be decided in February.

It's what our director of finance describes as ‘living within our means’ and setting a budget that is affordable given our anticipated income and funding for the year.