This budget is about the money that this Council has to spend and the ways in which it decides to spend it or not spend it. But the important issue is not the money itself but the effect that it has on people’s lives. We are not bringing this amendment because we have a pathological hatred of financial reserves, but because we have a deep-seated hatred of ill health, and poor education, and unsafe situations for children, and freezing homes for elderly people, and the despair that goes with a life where everything seems to be getting worse. And we resent seeing the Council sit on the financial means to deal with those issues, but do less and less each year.
There are a few people in Suffolk who would cope perfectly well with minimal County Council services. So long as the roads are well-enough maintained for them to be able to drive their children to their private schools and visit their private hospitals they are not much bothered by any of the other things the Council provides.
And there are plenty more people who are not being obviously failed by this council. Debenham has one of the highest life expectancies of any Ward in the UK. Framlingham has one of the highest levels of educational attainment. Aldeburgh has a thriving and well-resourced community of local activities.
But then you look at other parts of Suffolk – the parts where more than half the population live. Bridge Ward in Ipswich, where life expectancy for both men and women is more than 10 years less than it is in Debenham. Ipswich Academy, which has amongst the lowest educational attainment in England. Kirkley in Lowestoft, with one of the highest levels of deprivation in England and with high levels of youth unemployment and disaffection. And yes, the Other Suffolk is not just confined to Ipswich & Lowestoft, but you will find it in Haverhill, and in Sudbury, and in Great Cornard, and in Brandon and in all those places where people CAN improve their lives but need the County Council to provide services which enable them to do so.
So, Mr Chairman, we propose to use the very substantial resources the Council has available, to enable the people of Suffolk who need our help to make their lives and the lives of everyone around them happier, healthier, more productive, more creative, better in every way.
Some of my colleagues will speak about the specific proposals in our amendment, but let me set out some broad principles.
First – We accept the need for prudence. It is bizarre that the Chancellor whose name was associated with financial prudence for so many years is now being blamed by the Party opposite for the default on mortgages in Mississippi and the collapse of leveraged bonds in Kansas, but the truth is that our Party has always understood the difference between revenue and capital. What we say is that you do not understand the need to invest in the future, and that includes not just roads and flood defences and Broadband, but also healthy and well-educated and trained young people. We fully appreciate that money in the reserves can only be spent once. That is why our proposals come to a total of £12 million, so that that same amount could be spent year after year for the next 5 years and the reserves would STILL be higher than they were in 2010.
Second – We applaud genuine efficiency. We recognise the success of some departments of this Council in reducing the need for some of their services or the cost of providing them. The less domestic waste we have, the less money we have to spend on disposing of it; and if we can make a bit of extra dosh by disposing of Norfolk’s waste too, so much the better. If our staff can deliver IT and Human Resources and other back-office functions more effectively and cheaply than the CSD contract could, then by all means let’s keep them in-house. So we are not arguing against all the savings in your budget, and it is entirely possible that there might be further areas in the coming years where further genuine savings can be made.
Third – We particularly deplore those cuts where the outcome is not just a poorer service, but also additional financial cost to the public sector. When someone is still in hospital not because they need to be for medical reasons but because there is no residential care home place for them, or no Very Sheltered Housing place, or no adequate domiciliary care to enable them to live in their own home, then this Council has not just failed that person but has also contributed to the national deficit and deprived someone else of a hospital bed. When a young person passes through school with no qualifications, becomes unemployed, and ends up in prison, we are letting that young person down and we are letting the whole of society down.
Where the cost falls on the rest of Society we need to ensure that our preventative services are improved and we also need to make the case for increasing the proportion of public money available for preventative services. There are numerous references to partnership working in this budget, but it is no good cutting the money available to the preventative services and then expecting the other parts of the Public Sector to make up the difference from their budgets. No – we need to invest in good preventative services and then seek to recover the savings that accrue. “Invest to save” is the phrase – not “cut first save later”. I believe that a far higher level of preventative work is possible, but it is not going to happen in an atmosphere of competing levels of cuts. If we were serious about delivering joined-up services with the NHS in a spirit of mutual trust and cross-financing, why is the County Council closing the one Children’s Centre where joined-up services are available simply because we don’t want to pay rent to the NHS?
And where a cut to our services is actually going to increase the costs to this council, then clearly it is absurd. Sure Start Children’s Centres were set up by the last Labour government to give families help and advice that they weren’t previously accessing – and one of the most valuable strands of that was welfare benefits advice. For a so-called saving of just £100,000 per year you have given notice to 7 people in the Financial Inclusion Advice Service who between them, in the last financial year for which we have records, secured one-off payments of £97,118 PLUS £1,563,647 in recurring annual income for some of the most vulnerable families in Suffolk, and prevented 40 families from being homeless and at least 40 children having to be taken into care. That is not just callous, it is preposterously stupid!
Fourth – “Managing Demand” can mean one of two things. Where the need for a service has reduced, because the cause for the demand has been remedied, then we can all applaud. Older people living longer in their own homes, children staying with their own families or in loving foster families rather than in out-of-county placements, fires prevented rather than having to be extinguished – all of these are clear wins and everything we do should work towards these goals. But far too often when you talk about managing demand you mean:
- reducing the quality of the service so that less people want it, or
- reducing the number of people who can afford the service, or
- raising the eligibility threshold so you can stop people accessing the service.
I think we have a serious job of work to do over the next 10 years or so to get people to think about what is really important to them, and how much they are prepared to pay for it. That is not an issue for today, but your talk about “managing demand” rings fairly hollow to a potential trainee who is unable to take up a course because they have no means of travelling to the relevant college.
I need to say something about our proposed pyramid projects for the secondary schools that so desperately need improvement. We have no pre-conceived prescription for what needs to be done. But clearly neither do you. The “Raising the Bar” project has produced words but precious little action. Spending on conferences has increased, but spending on actual school improvement services has been slashed. The Council has demonstrated clearly that it does not possess the expertise to deal with the crisis of our failing schools and academies. It does not even possess the expertise to understand what outside help it needs to start dealing with the crisis. I only wish it possessed the political will to make something happen.
“Labour is throwing money at the problem” you say. Well it would make sense to look at a similar case in the past where Labour “threw money” at the problem, namely the London Challenge, which brought education in Boroughs like Hackney from a darker place even than it is in this County now, to a level at which you said you wanted to learn from their success. Leaving aside the fact that so far as I know none of you have ever bothered to visit Hackney or learn anything from them, the basic point was that they needed a step change, they needed a completely new approach with new dynamic management, and they weren’t going to get either of those things without the application of money. You may have recognised the need for these academies to improve, but what you have singularly failed to appreciate is that unless you make a substantial amount of money available upfront you are not going to attract anyone with any vision to take the challenge on – not because such a person would be primarily motivated by money for themselves, but because they would instantly realise that you were not serious about making the resources available which would be necessary for success.
And what of your other attacks on our proposals?
“Austerity is going on into the future and we will need to cut the County’s budget every year forever:”
– well if that is true then we might as well all go home now, because if the present level of cuts continues for more than 5 years there won’t be a council left.
“An incoming Labour government has no plans to spend anything more than the present government :”
– it is certainly true that an incoming Labour government is determined to reduce the deficit – and we believe it will have more success in doing so because we will not be increasing the benefits budget year after year unlike your lot
– it is also certainly true that an incoming Labour government is not going to instantly reverse the cuts to local authority revenue that you have imposed
– but the Labour approach will be to increase capital spending, including on transport, flood defences and schools, and to increase the contribution to deficit reduction from taxes, including taxes from ultra-wealthy tax dodgers in Monaco
– just because we will not increase revenue spend instantly, does not mean that we will continue with the ridiculous level of cuts your government has proposed for the next 5 years
– by genuinely amalgamating Health and Social Care the whole landscape of County Council responsibilities and budgets will be changed, and an extra few million squirrelled away on top of the £80 or £90 million in reserves you would have anyway if you support our amendment will not make a whole heap of difference to anything – whereas having effective public services in a County with an atmosphere of hope will make all the difference in the world.
“All your figures are wrong:”
Well I certainly accept that we have had to use an amount of guesswork. Because the information we have been given is incomplete, confusing, and as difficult to pin down as the famous moving target in the Golden Shot.
Reserves – in respect of this budget, we have been asking about reserves since November of last year. Are we certain we know what every reserve represents? No we aren’t. But given that our main argument is that you have a shedload of money which you don’t need, and we have been making that argument for the past 4 years, it is a bit remarkable isn’t it that you have not identified what you do need it for? We asked you, Cllr Antill, how much of the reserves was actually earmarked and for what – your reply was that of the £154 million predicted to be in the bank on April 1st 2014, only £35 million was NOT earmarked. Where is the schedule of all the things that the other £120 million is earmarked FOR? Being earmarked as a “reserve” does not constitute being earmarked for a specific purpose. If you wanted to convince us that this money really was earmarked then you would have told us what it is for. The only possible explanation for not giving us a blow-by-blow breakdown of the important purposes that you are saving all this money up for is that you DON’T KNOW.
And as for the so-called schedule of savings – Scrutiny demanded an explanation of the Supporting Lives Connecting Communities Transformation Project savings (£6 million) and the Making Every Intervention Count Transformation Project (£5.1 million). You may accuse us of throwing money at services in an attempt to prevent them being cut to nothing, but your approach is clearly to throw meaningless words at the problem to prevent anyone seeing what you are doing. Anyway, the response that came back for the MEIC project was a bit vague, a bit ball-park, but it was possible to see what cuts were being proposed and roughly how much each of those cuts might save the council. But the response on SLCC is an absolute classic – out of £6m we have three items of saving: redesign business processes – £500k; charge more for training places – £100k; everything else – £5.4 million. “It is difficult to precisely quantify which element will have an impact of a specific value” – well I don’t think £5.4 million for everything else is imprecise – I think it says “We haven’t got the foggiest idea!” And later in the same paragraph you admit that the £6 million has nothing to do with quantified savings that have been calculated on the basis of the actions you are going to take – it is the amount by which the cost of social care services is expected to rise, and which you have demanded should be found as a saving, irrespective of the fact that you have no idea how such savings can be found.
This is not a budget, it’s a cry for help!
Mr Chairman, fellow Councillors, up and down the country there are councils which are finding innovative and constructive ways to protect their most vital services in the face of swingeing cuts from the government. Unfortunately this Council is not one of them. There is no good reason for us to have £154 million in our reserves and I call on you to support our amendment and use the money we have to protect the people of Suffolk who we are meant to represent.