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Suffolk County Council’s burget proposed cuts amounting to £34.4m – leading to a budget requirement of £445,659,553. With all these cuts the budget still increased council tax by 2% – though in a figleaf to the administration’s electoral promise to freeze council tax for the entire electoral period this was worded as “”The budget is based on a freeze… but includes a 2% precept to fund Adult Social Care…”
The Lib Dems supported a Labour amendment that tried to ameliorate – indeed turn back – the cuts. They were joined in cross-party unity with the Greens, the Independents and even UKIP. It was a tight vote but the administration squeezed through.
With this cross-party support, the Labour amendment was lost by a narrow margin: 32-36. The Conservatives won their budget 36-27.
LibDem deputy group leader John Field told council:
Local councils have suffered heavily at the hands of the chancellor as he tries to reduce the deficit that the bankers generated. The County finances are challenged but since 2011 reserves have increase steadily to £140.5 m with £36.9 m in the contingency reserve. This is money “for a rainy day” not spent boosting the economy or protecting vulnerable people.
The government is now assuming that councils raise council tax by 1.7% per year – and, if they deal with social care, another 2% on top of that. If they don’t do this their spending power will fall. There will be no more Pickles grants for keeping tax rises at zero. As I see it that leaves Suffolk County Council as a tax cutting administration in a pickle. Raise tax by just 2% and your resources decrease. Raise it by 3.7% as the government is assuming and you break your pledge of zero rises. Do you square the circle by “managing demand”, is it “Transformation” or “Demand Management” locking the door so people can’t get in?
We believe that there must be a continual activity where services are re-engineered to reduce unnecessary process steps and to seize the possibilities offered by technological change.
However, we receive anecdotal information that the vulnerable are steadily receiving reduced service. We believe that we need proof that front line services are being preserved. The need for continual “demand management” implies they are not. When people do not get the care they need and the knock on effect on the NHS is substantial.
There are sound reasons for reserves but there is no need to grow them endlessly. The proposal within the amendment to use a sum equal to the recent growth to support services is a rational choice. We will no doubt be reminded that reserves can only be used once, obviously true but there is no proposal to spend all the £140.5 m in one period of excess or even all the £36.9 m in the contingency reserve. The proposals in the amendment appear sound; the proposal to reinstate this selection of your cuts is socially responsible.
Many of the cuts that would be reversed not only meet the needs of the vulnerable but also increase economic growth or reduce costs like those of the delayed transfer of care. They will reduce spend elsewhere in budgets throughout the public sector. Those savings are far harder to measure than the administrations cuts but nevertheless are real.
It is your choice to build reserves and endlessly reduce service or to meet need. You cast yourselves as heroes dealing with adversity but just deliver cuts to the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. For these reasons we support the Labour amendment.
John Field (deputy group leader)
Suffolk will be getting a new Community Transport model – despite reservations from opposition parties – after the cabinet decision to tender for continuing community transport using a new structure was “called in” this month.
Community transport is the term for services like Dial a Ride that provide “on demand” transport to people no longer served by scheduled buses or trains. Over recent years the Conservative administration have increasingly replaced scheduled bus services in rural areas of Suffolk with community transport, but delivery has remained patchy disparate and problematic. A variety of these services have operated under various brands serving different communities and specific user-groups although their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers. Often people have had little idea of availability and there has been large areas of unmet need – particularly in the area of young person’s travel , regular travel to employment, weekend and evening travel, and same day travel.
Under the new proposal, seven contracts would be let (one per district council). This would ensure people would easily know who they should phone to book a journey and allow for greater flexibility of provision. The problem with that is that people often travel from one district to another to visit the hospital or shop in a major town.
The proposal is that current vehicles will be sold to the providers, a move that would allow a wider range of customers to be served. When the county owns vehicles, providers cannot use them to provide services if that would compete with commercial services. That would involve the state subsidising one service to compete against another.
Another advantage will be that they can then select vehicles to meet the need as they see it rather than having to use what the county provides.
The county hopes that this will allow competition for services such as some forms of home-to-school transport that will use the assets more intensively.
So why was this proposal called in by the Labour group? Well, there were five reasons but we LibDems thought the most significant was financial.
The intention was that, not only would the county no longer provide free vehicles saving it some some £570k (which largely voluntary bodies would have to find) but also it would reduce the subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years. Increased revenue from the new freedom to provide services was supposed to compensate for this significant cut.
Scrutiny believed it more likely that, although the providers would survive, using their new freedoms and their vehicles to provide the county with alternative sources of transport (for instance home to school services) others would suffer. Many services to people without other transport options would be unlikely to be supported by the new lower county contribution – and will be cut. And as the new contract is deliberately non-specific, the County could claim this is a matter outside its control.
We referred the decision back to cabinet but in a very brief process which allowed no comment from other councillors they dismissed the reasoning of the cross party scrutiny committee and decided there would be no change.
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