Mr Chairman, fellow Councillors, I would like to start by making it clear that this is an amendment to the administration’s budget, and not an alternative budget. Setting a budget for a local authority is a very difficult task, and involves many hours of expert work from experienced local authority officers. Most administration parties find it difficult to put their own stamp on a workable budget. For an opposition party to presume to be able to draw up a workable budget without the resources and level of cooperation that are afforded to the administration would be the height of folly. I well remember the Conservative amendment to the Labour-led administration’s budget, drawn up by your then finance spokesman Colin Barrow – it was less than one side of A4, and the figures on it didn’t even add up – but that was no bar to Cllr Barrow going on to lead Westminster City Council.
But in any case, we believe you have an almost impossible task in setting a budget which delivers the statutory services which this council has a duty to deliver, within a budget envelope which the Secretary of State has slashed without consultation or justification, and without any credible evidence that vital Local Authority services will survive at all.
Residential Care, domiciliary care, transport to school and training, youth services – there are so many areas where – IF the current government agenda of cuts to Local Authorities persists – we can expect to see a completely untenable service within a very short time.
We believe it is the duty of an effective opposition not only to point out where we think you – the Council administration – are going wrong, but also to voice the anger and frustration of all those who can see everything that is best about council services being destroyed by an ideologically motivated government – a government which 2 of the parties in this chamber are colluding in.
So, even if our amendment were passed, we would still not be in support of your budget, as it starts from the base of a wholly inadequate financial provision for basic services which are already beginning to fail – and then cuts them even further!
But what we can do, what we ask you to take in the constructive spirit in which it is intended, is to point up those items where we believe you can afford to spend money on retaining services – or in some cases on enhancing services – even within the butchered financial envelope still available to you. And the theme which runs strongly through our amendment is “Investing in the Future”. Because it is a misuse of language to talk about “savings” when the cost to society of a loss of service is far greater than the cost of providing the original service would have been.
The most expensive places to live – by far – are not luxury hotels, but prison and hospital. It is no coincidence that the countries which have the most effective and comprehensive social care and youth services – the Scandinavian countries – also have the lowest incidence of crime and the healthiest populations.
We make no apology for the very heavy bias in our amendment towards addressing the inadequacy of education in Suffolk. Talking about “every child matters” and “raising the bar” shows a recognition of the need to improve our services for young people, but there are specific improvements which we know, and you know, and Ofsted knows will work, and unless you allocate the funds to those improvements your words are just so much empty rhetoric. A child only has their childhood once. Most teenagers only get one chance to get the grades they need in their exams to go on to their chosen career. If we fail a child or young person, we can’t apologise and offer them another go. If we enable that child or young person to learn better, to achieve better grades, to study better university courses or undertake better workplace training, then we are investing in the future of our County. Unless this council is prepared to spend the money it takes to get an effective school improvement service, an effective educational welfare service, well-resourced libraries, decent services for children on the Autistic spectrum, proper support for voluntary services that work with our most vulnerable young people, supported housing for those unfortunate enough not to have a family home that they can live in – we will not reap the reward of engaged and active working people contributing to their community, but of disaffected and despairing young unemployed, costing the society which has let them down.
And our Amendment also highlights the importance of maintaining well-trained staff and a well-funded social care preventative service. Helping people to stay in their own homes is a welcome and effective approach – but it is not free, and if it is not properly funded it won’t work. If we do not have properly trained staff, the social care services we have in this county will not be delivered safely. And if the private companies to which you have contracted out so many of your services are not giving their staff proper training – then this authority has a moral duty and a vested interest in offering that training to them. We know we will have more elderly people needing care in the future, and we need to prepare for that future now – we need to invest in the future of our elderly residents, just as much as our young people, so that they can lead supported but independent lives in their own homes rather than in hospitals or nursing homes.
And let me just mention the 2 capital items in our amendment. At a time when there is still significant youth unemployment in our county, when we need a stimulus to create productive jobs – not just retail jobs based on an increase in personal borrowing – and when we need to increase the economic productivity of Suffolk in order to attract inward investment, there is every reason to invest in transport.
The Labour Group welcomes the investment being made in transport schemes – schemes which were for the most part started under a Labour Government – but there are two obvious holes. One is the lack of any programme for the Third River Crossing in Lowestoft, and we now call on the administration to honour the agreement to prepare a feasibility study for it. And the other is any source of finance for small-scale but vital safety and other minor capital works on roads in our major towns – works which may well save many times their actual cost in preventing accidental injuries and deaths.
Mr Chairman, investing in the future is not wilful and wasteful squandering of taxpayers’ money, it is helping to build a better society in Suffolk which will enable our residents to have more fulfilling and productive lives, and to contribute to society in the long run, rather than costing it to remain dependent.
But the Labour Group do recognise that in the present climate the people of Suffolk expect us to be extremely cautious with public money, and that is why we are not proposing an amendment to increase Council Tax. Instead, we believe it is time to use some of the money squirrelled away in reserves in order to invest in preventative services which will save on costs in the long term, and increase the potential for economic growth in our county.
Now Cllr Noble is determined that not a penny of the Contingency reserve should actually be spent on vitally-needed services. Cllr Noble does not think like me – for instance, when I likened him to a younger version of Eric Pickles – it was in Staffordshire, at the County Councils’ Network Conference – he was visibly chuffed, and Pickles was amused too. It’s not a comparison I would welcome – I am still in shock from the moment, seconds later, when Pickles actually hugged me – yes, let’s not go there….
But when it comes to Council Reserves I’m afraid Colin does not see eye to eye with his guru. On 29th of November last year, Eric Pickles said that councils were misleading the public if they claim they have no money left. This is what he said -“There are no rules on what councils should hold in reserve and taxpayers will be amazed that while councils are amassing billions in secret stockpiles some are pleading poverty.
“Everyone appreciates the need for a financial umbrella for those rainy days but keeping reserves at levels unprecedented in recent years should give local residents pause for thought. Instead they could be tapped into to ensure councils can protect frontline services.”
And then of course, there is the old cliché that reserves can only be spent once. “What will you do next year?” says Cllr Noble, “and the year after?” Every year we hear this argument, and every year the reserves grow and the needs which that money could have met also grow.
This administration has a history of underestimating the level of its reserves. In April 2009 the overall non-schools reserve was £74.3 million. In April 2010 it had gone up to £77.8 million. In February 2011 you predicted a total non-schools reserve of £85.7 million by April 2012 – what you ended up with was £131 million. In February 2012 you predicted a total non-schools reserve of £126.5 million by April 2013. We suggested you should spend some of this money on vital public services – and in particular on preventative care. “We can’t spend any of this” you cried, “look, the overall reserve is coming down from £131 million to £126.5 million.” Well it didn’t come down, did it? It went up. To £156.5 million. I’m sorry – let me just repeat that: £74 million; £78 million; £85 million; £131 million; £156 million – up and up and up and up.
The fact is it is not always possible to estimate the level of reserves accurately a year ahead. And it is always impossible for anyone other than the administration to identify what the reserves actually are because the elements that you count into the overall figure change with every report you publish. But year after year this administration has added to its reserves and the time has now come to spend some of that money on the services which are so desperately needed – not in 10 years’ time but now.
Mr Chairman, fellow Councillors, stashing money in the bank when there are urgent needs, urgent investment needs which will help prevent hugely greater expense in the future, is not prudent. It is callous, and short-sighted, and doomed to failure. This council cannot afford not to support this amendment, and I commend it to you.