Last year I presented an amendment to this Council’s budget which had a degree of similarity with the Amendment you have before you today. I make no apology for that. We told you last year that our amendment – although for the budget for that year – was one which we knew could be sustained for several years. We said at the time that the services we knew needed to be saved – Children’s Centres; Libraries; transport for young people to education and training; Residential Homes and home-care services – would require increased spending in each year. And that is why, in addition to reversing some of the most pernicious of the cuts you propose for this coming year, we have included elements from last year as well, where we believe the cuts you have already made should be reversed.
We believe that your attitude to the budget of this Council is fundamentally wrong. We recognise that this Council needs to be careful with money – that it is the money provided by the taxpayers of this County, and not ours to squander recklessly. But we also know that the contract between the people of Suffolk and their County Council is that they should pay an amount which is appropriate to their means, and that we should provide the services that they expect from us in return. The contract is NOT that they should pay their tax and we should heap it up in an already swollen reserve.
Councillor Noble will no doubt make the point several more times today that the Conservatives were elected to administer this County. Leaving aside the fact that the Conservatives did NOT get an overall majority of the votes, you were NOT elected by the people of Suffolk to slash the Fire Service Councillor Noble; you were NOT elected to halve the finance for Community transport, or to close down Children’s Centres, or to deprive Libraries of books. Where in your manifesto or leaflets from 2013 does it say “We will ensure that over 400 of the most vulnerable people in our County live in Care Homes which are inadequate”? Where does it say “We will strive to reduce our support for waste recycling, so that you will have to pay for your green or brown bin”? How many of your candidates were photographed on your leaflets pointing at the extra potholes which will appear in our roads because you have cut the Capital maintenance budget?
Just as in previous years, your cuts will create problems for the future, for our residents, for the other public sector organisations in Suffolk and even for yourselves. How can it make sense to cut the funding for Voluntary Sector organisations that give people so much help for so little cost, and then have to pick up the much higher cost when people inevitably have to call on our statutory services? How can you claim to be prudent when you are devoting an ever greater proportion of the highways budget to filling potholes, and an ever-diminishing amount to resurfacing the roads properly so that the holes don’t appear in the first place? What sort of warped logic sees this authority champion apprenticeships and training places and then fail to provide the transport our young people need to get to those training places?
We applaud genuine savings. Every tonne of waste that is not created, or which is recycled rather than incinerated; every family that stays together and provides a safe and loving home for its children, rather than having them taken into care; every older person who is able to return to their home with the right package of help rather than remain in a hospital for weeks longer than necessary – these are the trophies of good preventative public services which meet the real needs of people BEFORE their lives are blighted, and which help produce a better society for us all.
But you won’t achieve those sorts of genuine savings if you cut your investment in the preventative services. You can’t take the money out of the equation BEFORE it has prevented the wasted resources and the wasted lives – you need the Welfare Officers in Children’s Centres, the advanced diagnoses for ADHD and Autism, effective and speedy adaptations in people’s homes, comprehensive Fire Prevention advice and inspections, and THEN you will reap the premiums of healthier people, more resilient families, young people who learn to thrive, and a safer County.
Health and Social Care Integration is one of the chief ways in which we can help people live better lives for less money. It is depressing that it has still not been achieved. You have our support for anything that can be done to achieve it. It doesn’t form an explicit part of our budget amendment this year because you have not claimed any ability to take money out of the system through Health and Social Care Integration this year. But your attitude to savings makes it less likely rather than more likely that you will ever be able to achieve it. Because in order to work cooperatively with the Health Service you have to be prepared to pay for some things up front and have the faith that the rewards will be forthcoming. How can the Health Service, or anyone else, invest in improved County services in order to achieve reductions in their own costs, when they cannot know whether the County won’t just use it as an excuse to cut its own budget even further? How can anyone believe that you have the political will to achieve integration when you weren’t even prepared to pay the NHS the rent on the Meredith Road Children’s Centre – one of the most heavily used Children’s Centres in the County in one of the most deprived areas in the County.
And it’s not just the Health Service that might think twice before investing money in this Council – we know that your own Secretary of State, and your Chancellor, consider your level of reserves to be wholly inappropriate. There is a very real danger that you will get less income than otherwise, because the government cannot see you doing anything useful with what they DO give you.
I have lived in Suffolk for more than half my life, but I have lived elsewhere – London, Hampshire, Israel. I don’t think I am deluded when I say that I think Suffolk is the best place to live in my experience. Our land is more fertile, our skies are wider, our communities are more closely-knit and yet at the same time open to newcomers, our access to the countryside and to the coast blows away the claustrophobia that infects so much of urban life. But it could be so much better.
We could start to break down the 10-year gap in life expectancy between our most and least affluent Wards. We could get back into the top quartile for education once more, as we were in 2001, and see our children thrive. We could provide the spur for inventiveness and aspiration so that our brightest young people stay in this County and do not feel the need to move to London or Birmingham or Cambridge in order to improve their lives.
We need to get away from the unremitting negativity of cuts. We need to celebrate the positive contribution this Council can make to helping our County to thrive. The attitude of the government towards public services – and especially Local Authority services – needs to change. But we don’t have to wait for that sea-change in attitude in order to make changes here in Suffolk right now.
We propose to use the very substantial resources the Council has available – £14 million MORE in non-capital reserves in 2015 than we had in 2014, as you can see from Appendix A – 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.
Naming new pots of money, or separating out some money as capital, or subdividing the earmarked reserves pots, or reallocating money from Service Reserves to Contingency Reserves or vice versa, cannot disguise the fact that in March 2010 you had £77 million in reserves and in March 2015 you had £177 million in reserves. I do not propose that we should spend £100 million all at once, but I do suggest that any programme which sets the £77 million figure as a safe floor could not possibly be accused of being unsafe – it was safe in 2010 and it would be safe now – and that would enable £20 million to be spent each year for five years.
We fully appreciate that money in the reserves can only be spent once. That is why our proposals come to a total of under £14 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. And already today we see additional income for this authority in the coming year – £3.6 million you are throwing straight into reserves – so that the amount we are calling from reserves will be affordable over an even longer time-span. And just as the amounts going into reserves had been underestimated year after year after year, so the ruthless cuts you have been imposing have led to a culture of underspending which must not continue now that schools and care homes and transport providers are on the brink of collapse.
It is time to defend the ability of this Council to protect and improve people’s lives. We have called for properly paid staff in the Care sector for many years, and so will not stand in the way of the 2% Council Tax increase that you have proposed to help meet the cost of raising wages to the National Living Wage. But I must point out that the amount you raise with the 2% will not wholly cover that rise, let alone anything else. Unless this Council spends considerably more on social care we will fail our vulnerable elderly. Unless we spend more on teacher recruitment and other help for our schools we will be failing our children and young people. And unless we spend more on road maintenance and on buses we will jeopardise our ability to improve the economic future.
Whatever you may think, “Austerity” is not going on into the future forever. If the present level of cuts continues for more than 5 years there won’t be an effective council left. We cannot know how attitudes to public spending will change in another 5 years’ time. But we do know that if we cut £34 million from the OCuncil’s spending this year, and £38 million next year, and £30 odd million the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that, we will be prematurely destroying everything that makes this Council worthwhile. Surely it is better to maintain a sane and acceptable level of public services as long as possible, gradually spending down the reserves until either there is a change of heart at government, or we decide as a society that we will ditch the whole idea of public services and reintroduce a Victorian vision of individual wealth amidst abject poverty.
Mr Chairman, fellow Councillors, There is no good reason for us to have £177 million in our reserves. There is every good reason for us to protect our Fire service and our Community transport and our Libraries and our Children’s Centres and our Care Homes – 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.