Owl says: had the council raised council taxes by the cost of living in each of the years they boasted about freezing it AND making cuts at the same time ALL of the shortfall would have been covered – and more. They would have raised £114m whereas current cuts required immediately are £28 million. And all to pretend to voters that they were being very, very clever when they were being very, very stupid.
East Devon District Council operated with the same “freeze, cut and boast” throughout those years too. Though interestingly, one thing they don’t seem to have cut is staffing levels …..
“Tory council latest casualty of drastic austerity measures imposed on local government:
“On Wednesday, the eight-person cabinet of Somerset county council voted through £28m of spending cuts, spread over the next two years. Over the previous six months, speculation had raged over whether Somerset would become the next Conservative-run council to join Northamptonshire in effectively going bankrupt and calling in government commissioners to sort out its mess.
And here was the answer, delivered at not much more than a week’s notice. To avoid a final disastrous plunge into the red, there would be a hacking-down of help for vulnerable families and children with special educational needs, youth services, road-gritting, flood prevention, and much more.
The proceedings took place at Shire Hall, a mock-Gothic Victorian edifice in Taunton, Somerset’s county town. An hour before they started, around 80 people had gathered to protest, chanting a slogan apparently dreamed up by the local branch of the public sector union Unison: “Don’t let the eight decide our fate.” Among the quieter participants in the protest were women who work on the county’s GetSet programme, which helps some of the county’s most vulnerable children and families. Around 70 of them are set to lose their jobs.
For fear of getting in trouble, they insisted on speaking anonymously. “There’ll be no early help,” one of them told me. “Families won’t get any attention now until they’re in crisis.”
“I’m lost for words,” said one of her colleagues. “I don’t know what to say, really. We’ve kind of been expecting this for years, but at the same time, you think, ‘Surely it won’t happen.’” They said they were expecting the finer details of the cuts’ implications to emerge in the coming days.
This is proving to be the year when the drastic austerity imposed on councils over the last eight years reaches a critical point. England’s Labour-run cities are faced with economies that stretch into the future. Back in February, Northamptonshire hit a financial wall, and issued a Section 114 notice, banning expenditure on all services outside its statutory obligations to safeguard vulnerable people. As well as Somerset, councils in Norfolk, Lancashire and East Sussex were soon said to be in danger of going the same way.
Each of these councils has its own story, but there are two common threads: they are Tory-run, and their financial problems are often ramped up by the needs of populations spread over large areas. Somerset, which covers 1,640 square miles, is a case in point and, like many English counties, its outward appearance belies its social realities.
Articles in Sunday magazines might suggest the county is now the preserve of farmers and recently-arrived hipsters. But its three largest towns are Taunton, Yeovil and Bridgwater: post-industrial, hardscrabble places which contain 19 council wards in the 20% of English areas classed as the most deprived, and whose social fabric has already been drastically damaged by austerity.
Inside the council chamber, the debate occasionally flared into anger, intensified by the fact members of the public had been given only 48 hours to read 600 pages of documents before submitting questions.
Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors repeatedly brought up the fact that between 2009 and 2016, Somerset’s ruling Conservatives had imposed a freeze on council tax, when an increase of 1.9% would have brought in an additional £114m. There were mentions of Somerset’s recent record on children’s services and the fact that in 2013, inspectors from Ofsted gave its work the lowest rating of “inadequate”, a verdict it says it has been trying to address since.
There was also talk about what was going on at the highest levels of the administration. In April, the council’s finance director departed after 31 years, and reportedly took a job at a donkey sanctuary; his temporary replacement is said to be costing the council nearly £1,000 a day.
Legally, all councils have to set an annual balanced budget. In this financial year, the meeting was told, the council was facing an overspend of £11.4m. Much of this was rooted in the rising costs of children’s services, traceable in turn to a shortage of social workers, foster carers and adopters. But there were plenty of other factors at work. In the last five years, the biggest block of money Somerset receives from central government, the so-called revenue support grant,has fallen from around £90m to less than £9m. Next year, it will disappear completely. The county’s reserves are now down to a mere £7.8m.
Ten years ago, as George Osborne commenced the era of austerity, the council’s Tory leadership gave the impression that it was only too keen to help. These days, by contrast, most of the Conservatives trying to find a way through the mess have the wearied, put-upon look of people hanging on to an ethos of public service, but involved in something so difficult that it seems almost impossible.
This theme ran through the 20 minutes I spent talking to the council’s Tory leader, David Fothergill. He said the council’s problems had affected his health, but wouldn’t be drawn on any specifics. “This isn’t why I came into politics,” he said. “We all try to make things better, but at times, it seems like we’re making things worse to try to get there.”
Up until 2009, the council was run by the Lib Dems, which also had three of Somerset’s five MPs. Now, all of the county’s parliamentary representatives are Tories, along with 35 of its 55 councillors. As much as anything, then, this is essentially a story about the Conservative party, and the widening gap between national politicians and the local councillors whom they expect to dutifully implement many of the decisions made in Westminster and Whitehall. By way of making these tensions clear, one Somerset MP this week accused the council of being “an object lesson in waste”.
“Three or four weeks ago,” Fothergill said, “I wrote to all of the Somerset MPs, telling them what was coming. Very little has come back. Four or five days ago, I wrote saying, ‘I really need some help – we’re getting to the sticky end of this.’ And I got nothing back: no response.
“I know we’re all busy, but actually, the most important people in all this are people who live in Somerset. And I will stand up for them, and make myself very unpopular, because my job is to look after them.”
Not long after we spoke, an emailed statement from the department for housing, communities and local government arrived: “Our funding settlement gave a real terms increase in resources for local government in 2018-19. Local authorities are responsible for their own funding decisions, but over the next two years, we are providing councils with £90.7 billion to help them meet the needs of their residents. We are giving them the power to retain the growth in business rates income and are working with local government to develop a funding system for the future based on the needs of different areas.”
As Fothergill led six hours of discussion in the council chamber, his voice occasionally cracked with emotion. Early on, he announced that a £240,000 cut in help for young carers, which had prompted no end of outrage, would be deferred and reviewed. But everything else passed, and there was frequent talk of more cuts to come.
In the Shire Hall’s cavernous reception area, I spoke to Leigh Redman, one of Somerset’s three Labour councillors. “The leader of the council needs to stand up and start pointing the finger,” he said. “He should stand up and say to the government: ‘We’re bankrupt. You’ve put us in this position – now get us out of it.’”
Was he talking about setting an illegal budget, and thereby triggering the arrival of government commissioners?
“If needs be,” he said. He then paused. “I’m waxing lyrical,” he told me. He then turned and went back up the stairs to the council chamber. There were three hours and several millions pounds of cuts still to go.”