3,2,1 … And They’re Off.
Oh look. It’s Election Year. And the Election Year games have begun.
As part of a new series of blogs I’m going to look at the claims and counter-claims in news articles and try and help people make sense of them. Obviously this will be from my perspective, which some would say is necessarily biased, but I will try and be completely honest in my views so people can take it or leave it.
The first article is in the Wisbech Standard (boo.)
Indented parts are taken from the article as linked above.
A budget amendment proposed by Steve Count, Conservative leader at Cambridgeshire County Council, says the “smoothing reserve”, introduced as part of last year’s budget, has formed a “cornerstone” of budget plans, and will contribute another £9.1million remaining towards next year’s budget. The council has already spent £3.4million on children’s services.
Translation: Smoothing reserve = savings.
The Conservatives also say they will use the Minimum Revenue Provision policy to “top up” the transformation budget by £4.764 million. They say this will help them “avoid the need to make unpalatable cuts” to services. It will also help add £1.336 million towards supporting essential front line services in next year’s budget.
Translation: Spend some savings to tide us over for the year.
The Conservatives say they will “utilise the freedom offered to us by Government” by raising general council tax by an additional one per cent this year, on top of the assumed increase of 1.99 per cent council tax and 2 per cent adult social care precept. This will contribute a further £2.758million to the budget.
Translation: Council tax is going up to as near as dammit the maximum amount allowed without a referendum.
Cllr Count said increasing council tax is not his preferred solution to balancing the budget, but noted that there needs to be more funding for the county from central government.
For somebody whose preferred solution is not to increase council tax, that’s a notable council tax increase. But to be fair to him, while everybody continues to refuse to speak plainly about the costs of Adult Social Care and Child Social Care – a nationwide problems in my view – his choices are limited.
In the Conservative amendment, Cllr Count says the council will continue to “actively lobby” for a new funding formula from central government, which they say is “destined to come in for the following financial year”.
Central Government seem to be too busy arguing with one another about how best to not deliver the Brexit people voted for to listen to all the many Council Leaders asking for more money.
Lib Dem leader Lucy Nethsingha said she “wished they didn’t need to put up council tax” but said the increase is “very much needed” to help make sure local services would continue to be delivered.
Liberal Democrats would probably love to say they wouldn’t do a Council Tax rise, but they can’t. Because several of them have already publicly said the rises are not actually high enough (I kid you not) and they know they wouldn’t get away with it. Mind you, that doesn’t usually stop them.
In a Lib Dem amendment to the budget, Lib Dem leader Lucy Nethsingha calls for a simplification of local government in Cambridgeshire. Cllr Nethsingha said money could be saved on rationalising council staff and premises. She also said the council should stay in Shire Hall, rather than splashing out on new premises in Alconbury (where they are due to move in 2020).
Classic Lib Dem stuff here. They know that people love to hate “councils moving to new headquarters.” Note the words used “splashing out” to conjure an image of largesse and waste. Of course they know that Shire Hall is an expensive building; expensive to heat, expensive to run, poorly-designed for the modern needs of a modern Council.” They know that a new custom-built premises would be affordable and cost-effective and that the classic original building will sell for a good price as its in a desirable location. They know, I feel sure, that its a decision that in all common sense has to be taken. They’ve read the Officers Report which shows it to be a sensible cost-saving move in the longer term. But the temptation to play on the idea of a Council “splashing out on swank and plush new premises” as though its some kind of ego trip is delightful for them. Worth a few votes as an election leaflet, by playing upon common tropes.
The Lib Dem amendment reads: “With five layers of local government in parts of Cambridgeshire the time is right for moving to unitary councils (one authority which takes on all local government responsibilities rather than a raft of them), rather than building expensive new offices at Alconbury.
I don’t disagree. We have too many layers of Government now. I hope that the Greater Cambs Partnership is considered as one of the ones that goes, though. Perhaps Cambridge City Council might be rolled into a larger area too? The writing must surely be on the wall for County Council at this point, but Government (all parties) is too busy working out ways to sell out the referendum result to look at the ridiculous over-complexity that exists now.
Labour leader Joan Whitehead said the council is in “dire straits” with some core services desperately needing more funds. Cllr Whitehead said Labour would be tabling an amendment calling for “cuts” to education budgets and children and young people’s services to be “reversed”.
And here’s your classic Labour nonsense. The Council is in “dire straits” they say. Their solution? Reverse the cuts that have already been made. Nice one Councillor Whitehead. What a beautiful example of socialist circular thinking. We don’t have enough money – spend more money! Good grief.
The Conservative amendment makes provision for extra spending on the county’s roads. Cllr Count said they had listened to the public, and that there were significant calls for the county’s road network to be improved.
Good news. For years now we’ve spun around chasing our tails while trying to protect and manage Adult Social Care and the highways have played second fiddle. The Adult Social Care situation is certainly a massive, massive challenge – but that doesn’t make it okay to let highways fall into disrepair. Nice to see that recognised and begin to be addressed. Its a shame that we can’t also completely change the way we decide which highways to do and when … but that’s an argument I’ve made for many years and gotten nowhere.
The Lib Dem budget amendment also says the number of committees on the council should be reduced to five, and that committee chairs and vice-chairs should be remunerated at the level recommended by the Independent Remuneration Panel. Cllr Nethsingha said these measures would save £102,000. Cllr Nethsingha said the Lib Dems would also remove the area champion allowance. The Lib Dems say they want to “focus on slimming down the costs of councillors”.
Oh you cheeky Lib Dems. Absolute champions of the ridiculous Committee System that led us precisely to where we are. It was always supposed to be cheaper and better, and its proven to be nothing of the sort. As some of us warned would happen. Now don’t get me wrong – I think that reducing the Committees to five and remuneration at the IRP level perfectly reasonable (and I said so and voted so at the time.) But none of this is about fiscal good sense. The Liberal Democrats, for whom no tax rise is a bad tax rise it seems, would not know fiscal good sense if it knocked on their front door and introduced itself with a gold-embossed business card. It’s about elections. They know that the public enjoy a bit of Councillor-bashing and saying you’re going to cut their allowances is a vote winner for anybody gullible enough to believe a word of what they say. Still, simplifying and cutting the costs of the system – although we are talking a drop in the ocean by County Council cost standards – would be no bad thing in my view.
The Lib Dems say the decision to withdraw therapy “is wrong for some of our most vulnerable children, but it is also deeply wrong in being another example of the administration failing to support council staff”.
According to their budget amendment, the team who provide MST were encouraged to set up a small company and to transfer council workers’ employment rights only a year ago.
The amendment reads: “They were promised the councils would maintain a contract with the new small business for three years. This council has now taken an opportunity to break that contract, and in effect break the promise they made to their own staff only a year ago.”
Cllr Count said the decision to stop MST had been made through the committee system, and that it had simply not presented the evidence it had been an effective use of council money.
I love it when any of the opposition Councillors cry about the consequences of the Committee System they voted for, they drove through and they implemented. The Committee System where they play a part in every decision taken. You wanted this, guys. Sure, you only wanted it because it suited you at the time to try and grab the levers of power. You saw an opportunity to overturn the applecart and you joined forces with UKIP, Labour and Independents to bring down the old system. So now, you play a part in all the decisions, and find it much harder to argue with policies decided by the Committees you sit on. You don’t seem to be having much fun, though? “Be careful what you wish for,” they say. True words.