“Somerset [Tories] blames ‘broken’ [Tory] funding system for major cuts”

Too little too late, councillors. You froze your council tax and submitted yourselves willingly (nay, enthusiastically) to austerity – now reap your “reward”. Or rather cause your voters to suffer for your blind adherence over these years to the party line.

“Youth services, learning disability support and reserves contributions will be hit under new plans approved by the council.

Savings of £13m over the remainder of this financial year and £15m in total in 2019-20 are expected to be made through the plans, ratified by the council last Monday.

The young carers service was the only area given a ‘stay of execution’ while the council discusses with the carers and the families where else they could get support, such as voluntary groups. This service could still be cut.

Council leader David Fothergill said: “This is not the biggest set of savings Somerset has faced. But it is absolutely the most difficult set of decisions we have had to consider.”

He added: “The government model for funding local authorities is broken.

“Rural councils like ours don’t get the funding they need or deserve.

“I have taken every opportunity to lobby and fight to address this, but there has been no extra funding. That is hugely disappointing.”

The council also wants to make savings in areas including winter gritting, park and ride services and funding to Citizens Advice Bureau services.

Fothergill said he would be writing to the secretary of state to ask for help before the next budget.

As reported by PF in July, the council ruled out issuing a Section 114 notice, as Northamptonshire council did earlier this year. It did say at the time it would have to make “urgent decisions” to address its financial position.

The council will be consulting on proposals for councillors and staff to take two days’ unpaid leave for the next two years. Unite union has criticised this idea, saying it was “a step too far”.

Elsewhere, Fife Council is faced with a £32m budget gap by 2022, according to a council report.

The Scottish council will have to make savings of 5% every year to plug gaps in its finances, the report put to the council’s policy and coordination committee said.

The council predicted its budget gap will rise from £9.4m in 2019-20 to £23.1m in 2020-21 and reach £32.1m in 2021-22.

The report said the biggest budget pressures faced by the council include children’s services and education (48%) and health and social care (17%).

The council has been contacted for comment.”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2018/09/somerset-blames-broken-funding-system-major-cuts

“‘Lost for words’: Somerset cuts £28m of help for most vulnerable”

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.”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/sep/14/lost-for-words-somerset-cuts-28m-of-help-for-most-vulnerable

“Councils in England spend £4bn on 220,000 redundancies since 2010 (and Tory Somerset County Council Leader blames Tories”

“English councils have spent almost £4bn making over 220,000 staff redundant since 2010, according to research which highlights the impact of austerity cuts on local government funding.

The north-west of England has seen the largest number of municipal jobs lost – over 41,190, followed by London (34,804), and the West Midlands (33,904), according to data obtained by the Local Government Chronicle (LGC).

Birmingham city council, the UK’s largest local authority, made by far the highest number of redundancies over the period – 8,769 – halving its workforce. As a consequence it spent the most on compensation packages (£184.8m). …

Many councils are preparing for a fresh round of cuts in a bid to stave off insolvency. Somerset county council yesterday announced it would make up to 130 staff redundant and make big cuts to children’s social care services as part of a two-year programme aimed at saving £28m.

The council, which was warned in May that its deteriorating finances put it at risk of going bust, said it was shifting to what it called a “core service offer”, meaning that it would look to deliver only those services it was legally obliged to provide.

David Fothergill, Somerset’s Tory leader, blamed the council’s position on a “broken” system of local government funding. The council had made £130m of savings over the past eight years. English councils have experienced government grant funding cut by around half since 2010.”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/13/councils-in-england-spend-4bn-on-220000-redundancies-since-2010

“‘Twisted political ideology’ to blame for 130 job losses at Somerset County Council, opposition leader claims” (many parallels to our district)

“Twisted political ideology” is to blame for a potential 130 redundancies at Somerset County Council, an opposition leader has claimed.

Liberal Democrat councillor Jane Lock said the ruling Tories should “hang their heads in shame” over decisions which she says led to the latest round of redundancies at the authority.

In an email sent out on Wednesday (August 29), council chief executive Pat Flaherty thanked staff for their hard work over the summer before announcing that 130 jobs could be on the line as the council looked to balance its books.

“I am keenly aware that for those affected this will be a very difficult time, indeed for the whole authority this will be a tough process,” Mr Flaherty said.

“The relevant managers have been asked to speak to their teams in advance of the information being published, but in some cases it may not be possible, and for that I apologise.”

A consultation has begun and a final decision will be made by the council’s cabinet on Wednesday, September 12, Mr Flaherty said.

Council leader David Fothergill said the authority faced a “huge financial challenge” after losing 40 per cent of its budget over the past eight years.

The news will come as blow but not a shock to authority staff, who have been on the receiving end of redundancies for several years.

Liberal Democrat opposition leader on Somerset County Council, Jane Lock, laid the blame firmly at the feet of the Conservatives.

“It’s clearly devastating for the staff members involved,” she said.

“It’s a twisted political ideology that is backfiring on them badly now. They froze council tax for seven years and they’re now reaping the rewards of that. If they’d put it up 1.99 per cent we’d have had an extra £29M each year.

“The situation that Somerset is in is down solely to those decisions.

“It’s a disgrace, they should hang their heads in shame.”

[This is exactly what EDDC has done]

She also suggested Somerset could soon follow Northamptonshire County Council.

Council leaders there issued a Section 114 notice, which put a blanket ban on all unnecessary spending, before announcing they would be reducing services down to a bare legal minimum.

On Tuesday, a majority of councillors on Northamptonshire County Council voted to put forward a bid to secretary of state for local government for its replacement with two unitary authorities.

In July, Somerset County Council leader David Fothergill categorically stated: “We are not going to write a 114 notice.”

It came at a meeting where cabinet members voted to use £5M of an emergency spending fund to shore up children’s services, which at the time was due to overspend by £20M.

But Mr Forthergill has launched a consultation on replacing the county council with one or more unitary authorities.

https://www.somersetlive.co.uk/news/somerset-news/twisted-political-ideology-blame-130-1953341

Dominoes teetering on the brink – Somerset County Council proposes 130 redundancies and cuts

Owl says: Bear in mind that Somerset County Council is the lead financial and administrative authority for the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership.

“A council has proposed cutting more than 100 jobs and major services so it can balance its books.

Somerset County Council has begun a consultation on 130 redundancies and is proposing cutbacks to highways, public transport and special needs services.

The authority needed to save £19.5m in 2017/18, but only made cuts of £11.1m.

In an email to staff, the council’s chief executive said the latest cuts were being considered due to severe financial pressures.

Council leader David Fothergill said the authority had been open about its “huge” financial challenge and would formally consult with trade unions about the redundancies.

“The coming weeks will be very difficult for the council and its staff, but we have to achieve financial stability,” he said.

Liberal Democrat councillor Neil Bloomfield said Somerset was going the same way as Northamptonshire County Council, which is facing a funding shortfall of about £70m and has banned all new spending this year.

‘A ruthless process’

He said: “If Somerset were to issue a 114 notice and the government appointed special commissioners, the desire would be to create their vision of a unitary authority and then you lose control of your own, local, decision making.

“The commissioners’ job is to save money and bring you back on budget. It’s a ruthless process.”

In an email sent to staff, chief executive Pat Flaherty said severe financial pressures meant the council was considering a “reduction in services and changes to staffing structures”.

Other ideas for savings include cutting funds to services for children and support for vulnerable pupils.

More details on the proposals will be announced next week.

The authority said it was trying to balance its books after eight years of central government cuts.

A final decision will be made by the cabinet on 12 September, Mr Flaherty said.”

Source: The Times (pay wall)

LEP governance … in the wrong hands?

The report below states that the lead council for a Local Enterprise Partnership should exercise firm control over all aspects of the LEP’s governance and claims.

In our area that would be Somerset County Council.

Aaahhh … Owl has already foreseen a problem here:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2018/03/09/warning-light-for-our-lep-council-partners-finances-somerset/

Warning light for our LEP council partner’s finances (Somerset)

Owl wonders how our Local Enterprise Partnership will function with (at least) one partner council “showing financial stress” – and the lead partner which provides most of the administrative services to the LEP … and have some of those “fallen useable reserves” (fallen 60% in five years) “fallen” to the LEP – possibly even towards Hinckley C support?

As we do not get to see LEP accounts, we will never know.

“Three Conservative-run counties have been added to the list of those showing signs of financial stress because of funding cuts.

Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire county councils are exhibiting some of the warning signs demonstrated by Northamptonshire county council before it declared itself effectively bankrupt last month, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The three join the Tory-run Surrey county council, which is facing a £100 million shortfall, as the counties in the deepest financial crises. The National Audit Office has found that one in ten councils could run out of money in the next three years. County councils have been hit hard by cuts to local government funding since 2010 and social care costs are rising.

Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire’s usable reserves — effectively rainy day funds — have all fallen substantially in recent years, the bureau’s research found. Somerset’s usable reserves have fallen by 60 per cent in the past five years, Norfolk’s have halved and Lancashire’s have fallen by 48 per cent.

All three show further signs of financial difficulty. In Somerset the council overspent on children’s and adult’s social services in each of the past three years and its budget this year projects a £14.6 million overspend on children’s services, the largest in the country. Last month it announced plans to close two-thirds of its children’s centres.

In Norfolk the council has spent more than it budgeted for in each of the past three years, the bureau found, although the council disputed the claim it had been overspending and insisted its budgeting was “robust and prudent”.

Lancashire has overspent on children’s and adult social services in each of the past three years, and its funding gap is £97 million in the coming financial year.

A spokesman for Somerset said that the findings “overstate the position and don’t take account of our considerable contingency funds or the plans we have in place to make savings”. A Norfolk spokesman said the research was “scaremongering” and that the council had recently “set a balanced budget for 2018-19”. Angie Ridgwell, Lancashire’s chief executive, said: “There may be sufficient funds within the transitional reserve to support the identified budget gap in 2018-19 and 2019-20. However, further savings will need to be made.”

Source: The Times (paywall)

[Somerset county council has announced plans to close two thirds of its children’s centres in a bid to save cash]

How to contact our Local Enterprise Partnership (but don’t send them a letter)

Owl thinks that our Local Enterprise Partnership’s contact details need a wider audience, especially as its CEO, Chris Garcia, has just had a 26% salary increase as it must be a VERY IMPORTANT organisation.

We know from Devon County Council that it has 4 full-time officers ( though we have no idea where they are based) and “a few” part-time employees ( though it does employ a lot of consultants).

We also know that its books are kept and audited by Somerset County Council – though they are not available for public inspection or scrutiny.

Here is a list from their web presence of how you can contact them – there is also a web contact form. But note they do not pick up their snail-mail very often – not good news for anyone they owe money to who sends them a paper bill ( perhaps because they have no rural broadband where they live, for example):

“You can contact us in the following ways:

By email: info@heartofswlep.co.uk

By telephone: 01935 385977 – The LEP’s reception service is provided by Yeovil Innovation Centre, supported by South Somerset District Council. Our partners who provide this service will forward any messages to the relevant contacts at the LEP.

Contact Helena Davison, LEP Communications Manager
Telephone: 07525 806333
Email: helena.davison@heartofswlep.co.uk

Inward investment enquiries
Contact Julia Stuckey, LEP Inward Investment Manager
Telephone: 07920530880
Email: julia.stuckey@heartofswlep.co.uk

Contact by post
Heart of the South West LEP, PO Box 805, Exeter, EX1 9UU
(Please note this PO Box is not regularly monitored and email contact is the recommended way of communicating with HotSW LEP.)”

http://heartofswlep.co.uk/contact-us/

“East Devon sees biggest job claimants rise in county”

“The county-wide figure increased by 58, compared with the previous month, taking the total claimant count to 2,918.

The increase included an additional 24 claimants in East Devon.”

http://www.midweekherald.co.uk/news/east_devon_sees_biggest_job_claimants_rise_in_county_1_4856861

Our Local Enterprise Partnership is charged with improving our economy … you know, the one that’s just given its Chief Executive a 26% payrise … the one who supervises 4 full-time staff and a small number of part-time staff. The one that Devon County Council and Somerset County Council opposed but went ahead anyway as it is the businessmen that control it as a majority.

What is the point of Somerset County Council being the LEP’s audit authority if it can’t prevent this sort of thing?

Lib Dems object to Local Enterprise Partnership CEO 26% payrise but there is nothing they or we can do about it

“The row over a £24,000 pay rise for the boss of a publicly funded enterprise partnership has deepened, with opposition councillors calling for Devon County Council to quit the body “until common sense prevails”.

It comes after the board of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership approved a 26 per cent pay rise for its chief executive on Tuesday, January 17.

It means Chris Garcia, who is employed through Somerset County Council, will earn £115,000 a year for his role helping to promote economic growth in Devon and Somerset.

Unison’s Devon County branch secretary, Steve Ryles, branded the pay rise “absolutely disgraceful” at a time when pay increases for council workers have been capped at one per cent.

Now Devon’s Liberal Democrat councillors have submitted a motion calling on the county council to use whatever means it can to stop the pay rise being implemented.

Cllr Alan Connett, shadow leader of the council, said: “At a time of ever tightening pressure on the public purse and yet more cuts in council services in the region, it is our view that the 26 per cent pay rise sends the wrong message to people when they face rising council tax bills and, for some, cuts in council tax benefit schemes which help the poorest.

“As a matter of genuine urgency, the board of the Local Enterprise Partnership should reconsider the pay rise it has awarded.”

The motion, proposed by Councillor Connett and seconded by Councillor Brian Greenslade, states: “At a time of huge reductions in Government funding for local councils forcing cuts in health, education, care for older people and children, Devon County Council is offended by the reported 26 per cent pay rise for the chief executive of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership.

“We call upon the council to take urgent steps to stop the annual pay rise of £24,271 and if it cannot do that, to withdraw from membership of the partnership until common sense prevails with regard to top management pay increases.”

Businesses, universities and local authorities are represented on the LEP board, including East Devon District Council and Devon County Council.

Asked how the proposal came about, the spokeswoman said: “The recommendation was made jointly by the chairs of the LEP board and of the LEP Finance & Resources Committee, in the interests of enabling the LEP to continue its momentum of success towards delivering its strategic economic plan.”

The LEP is chaired by Steve Hindley, chairman of Exeter-based construction firm Midas Group.

Before Tuesday’s board meeting in Tiverton, Devon County Council leader John Hart said: “As a local authority subject to significant government cuts, I cannot support a pay rise of 25 per cent for any high-level official.

“It is clear the CEO does a good job and the LEP has brought many millions of pounds into the Devon economy. But there has to be recognition of the tight financial times in which we live.”

A county council spokesman said on Wednesday the authority would be making no further comment on the matter.

The motion will be considered at the council’s budget and council tax setting meeting on Thursday, February 16.”

A spokeswoman for the LEP said it would not be releasing a breakdown of how board members voted on the CEO’s pay

http://www.exeterexpressandecho.co.uk/lib-dems-condemn-24-000-pay-rise-for-devon-and-somerset-enterprise-chief/story-30069142-detail/story.html