Absent Lib Dems or Financially Dangerous Labour?

Last Thursday was Budget Day at Suffolk County Council, it’s the most important meeting of the year as well its sets the Council Tax and the budget for the coming year and so it’s also the highpoint of the year’s debates. In an election year, its also one of the final formal meeting before we go to the polls.

As I sat there during the debate I pondered the choices in May and the state of the opposition. So let’s take a look firstly the Lib Dems, no doubt their election material will say ‘only the Lib Dems can win here’, as they always do.  But their woeful performance in the chamber was typified by their Leader who could not be bothered to turn up.  The dates of the Budget day meeting are set about a year in advance so he could hardly say it was not in his diary, he was on holiday, says it all really, in 12 years of opposition they have never tabled a budget amendment, not one.

So, what about Labour, you have to say their budget amendment was one of two things either the typical Corbinista fiscal denial, or shameless pure political showboating.  Possibly denial? after all their shadow Finance chap at the county is quoted as saying that the financial outlook for the Council is better in the next 4 years!, trouble is there is not one single report or independent commentator who agrees with him.  Presumably he is banking or gambling on a Labour Victory in 2020’s General Election and the Corbin Money tree would bail them out, or frankly is it it’s just political showboating.  As my Cabinet member for finance pointed out, they are saying spend, spend, spend at the county when we hold a general reserve of 10% and a total, for all future projects such as new schools, planned bridges and IT projects, allocated reserves at 39% of our total revenue budget but across the road where many of the same Councillors are part of the controlling Labour group, they put up the Council Tax every year but hold 54% in their general reserve and 84% in their allocated reserves based on its total revenue budget, I leave you to draw your own conclusions but it isn’t pretty either way.

In May, Suffolk Conservatives will stand on our track record of delivering 7 years of 0% raises in the base Council Tax and carefully applied the National Adult Social Care Precept to give our lowest paid, mainly care workers, a welcome pay increase and rightly so.

Suffolk Conservatives will stand on how we have radically changed the Council saving £200M since 2010 with much more to be saving to be made, given the diminishing Government grants, yet have protected front line services, such as our libraries.

Suffolk Conservatives will stand on our plans for the future where we will be innovative in our approaches and have lots of new ideas about how we go about things over the next 4 years building on the work these past 4 years but we will always, always be prudent and carefully with the budget and our reserves, ever mindful of the need to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and ever mindful it’s your hard-earned money.

So people have a choice in May, us, the Lib Dems if they can be bothered to show up, or the financially dangerous Labour Party.

Budget Day

Budget

This Thursday is Suffolk County Council’s Budget Day. It’s important for two reasons, it’s when we set the bulk of your, and my, Council Tax bill and we set the money each service will get to provide frontline services for the year ahead.

Budgets are important to Councils because until like the La, La, Land of the NHS finances where massive deficits mean little, in Local Government if you run out of money, wages are not paid and services shut down.

Every year the Conservative administration pour over the figures in the £500M budget starting almost as soon as the last budget is set. And whilst the figures are huge and services are vital such as protecting vulnerable children from abuse, the process is little different from how we budget at home.  We save money for big projects like a house extension or in the council’s case the two new Bridge projects. We have some money set aside for emergencies and the unexpected (reserves) and we plan for renewing smaller items like the computer, (major IT system changes) all of which is based on assumptions of our income in the coming years.

That may sound a bit simplistic but it’s essentially it’s the same process we go through at home.  For Local Government, as to future prospects all the future income indicators are poor as we face less money over the next few years’ from Government. So we maintain reserves to ensure we can sustain services and deal with the unexpected. It may at times be a little bit boring but we are prudent and careful with your money.

Just as in life then there are the neighbours or in our case the opposition Labour and Lib Dems.  Like the neighbour’s flash new car, always out there promising the world, spend, spend, spend for tomorrow never comes, we’ll get more money from somewhere, why have reserves, live for today. The Jeremy Corbin view of the world, it all look like fun and of course the sun will come out tomorrow, Happy Days.  But then again the last time they were allowed to be in control in Suffolk we all know how that ended, budgets not keep to, failing services and finally booted out of power, for raising the Council tax by 11.9% in one year and 18.5% in the next trying to keep the show on the road – ‘What rubbish’ I am told that was then this is now, but you see I don’t think it is rubbish, I think it’s a mind-set that has not changed one bit.

So we may be a bit cautious, we may be a bit tough in how we negotiate but, we have delivered 7 years of 0% raises in the base Council Tax and carefully applied the National Adult Social Care Precept to give our lowest paid, mainly care workers, a welcome pay increase and rightly so.  I hope in May people will allow us to carry on running the council, we will be innovative in our approaches and have lots of new ideas about how we go about things over the next 4 years building on the work these past 4 years but we will always, always be prudent and carefully with the budget and our reserves, ever mindful of the need to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and ever mindful it’s your hard earned money.

But remember those flash neighbours (and apologies to my neighbours who are all lovely people and not part of this reference!), if Labour and the Liberal were in power when they run out of the council’s money, guess who’s money they’ll come after, yours!

Thursday’s meeting is web cast so please log-in and have a watch.

Sizewell C Consultation

_64268820_coverimageedfbetterqualityTomorrow at Suffolk County Council our Cabinet will debate our response to the Sizewell C consultation 2 being run by EDF now.

In the scale of things there is simply no issue facing Suffolk of this magnitude.  When we look at the next biggest infrastructure projects, The Upper Orwell Crossing and the Third Crossing at Lowestoft, across both we are looking at about a £200M spend yet Sizewell C is predicted at £28B so the bridges are less than 1% of this project cost.

The scale of it is huge and I have seen it both from visiting the Sizewell B site and driving around all the roads and fields where this project will take shape.

A journalist commented to me that they felt our report reflected the mood of people locally, and I said that was not be accident as we have tried to encapsulate people concerns and feeling as this project comes forward.  There is a sense that of course this will happen as the county needs safe, independent of Europe, energy supplies but we must do all we can to make sure the area is not completely blighted for the next 10 years.

The plant is due to come on-line in 2030, and will for a period generate alongside Sizewell B which is due to operate until 2035, the two plants together will generate some 10% of UK energy supplies.

So, our role is to make sure we plan to mitigate its construction as best we can and for EDF to provide a legacy benefit to the community in the doing so.  We will hold them to account all the way through the process to help get it built and for that to be at the minimum costs to those living in this wonderful part of Suffolk.

Health and Social Care in Crisis?

health-and-social-care

When I became Cabinet member for Adult Social Care in 2009 at Suffolk County Council.  The very first fact that was drummed into me by the then Director of Adult Social Service, Graham Gatehouse that there are 68,000 people over the age of 75 in Suffolk and by 2030 there will be 126,000 – Suffolk, like many shire counties across the county has an ageing population. ‘Houston we have a problem’ and each year the good and the great from Think Tanks to Royal Commissions, Parliamentary Select committees and Minsters, politicians and Councillors from across the political spectre talk about Health and Social Care integration. The solutions are out there and we don’t need years of more debate and over the coming blogs I will set out some of those small steps that need to be done to make the system work better, not big bangs just small incremental steps that I think can work and we are trying to drive forward here in Suffolk.

3% National Adult Social Care Precept rise

 

health-funding

Last year the Government surprised many with the very welcome change from Minimum Wage to National Living Wage, a pay boost for the lowest paid in our society, which has been universally welcomed.  But it also must be paid for and the LGA and the CCN spoke for the entire Care industry in saying we have to, have more money to pay for this, so the Government introduced a new Tax, the National Adult Social Care Precept set at 2% of the Council Tax or in places such as Suffolk 2% of the County Council element of the Council Tax.

You can argue the merits of local v national, property or income based taxation as much as you like but the 2% did not quite cover what we paid to our providers to fund this increase in pay.  We are, this year, asking for the additional 1% Government has allowed, taking this tax to 3% and every penny raised with be spent on Adult Social Care for our most vulnerable residents.

In Suffolk, we carefully negotiate both the rates we pay for residential and home care, ever conscious that we are the holders of your hard-earned money you pay in Council Tax and balancing that, with the need to make sure that employers pay the higher National Living Wage and can attract the staff they need to provide the vital quality of care we would want for our own families.

This year we will not be putting up the base Council Tax for the 7th year running fulfilled our manifesto commitment when we were elected in 2013.  As a Conservative administration, we are philosophically opposed to increasing Council Tax and only do so to pay for those things that we rightly must provide to the most vulnerable in our society.

End of Year 2016

2016 New YearSo, as 2016 draws to a close, it’s a bizzare year to sum up.

On the personal front, it’s been a terrible one as we lost Dad in far too sudden circumstances.  We all miss him a lot.  It a strange thing to say when you ‘painted’ as this old hard-nosed individual but it’s a moment in life when both your parents have gone, of course we all must go through it, but it still a sobering moment for each of us.  Over Christmas, Lisa and I visited an Aunt of hers who is learning to live with Dementia, a dear lady I have known for 19 years who is struggling and in contrast before we left we travelled further north to visit my Auntie who is older but as sharp as a pin and in top form!  Old age is a strange journey and there is no play-book but what I do know is that this country has to wake up to the needs of an ageing population or we will sleep walk into an unpleasant society where old age is not celebrated but seen as a burden.  There are many things on the horizon but how we change our health and social care system and start building homes that address the needs of older people is right up there.

The highlight of the year for me as a Councillor, was being introduced to Her Majesty the Queen at the Home of Horse-Racing Museum official opening.  As we awaited her arrival I chatted with David Burnip the former CE of FHDC and asked him if he remembered my stance on the Palace House purchase and rescue, by the council, all those years ago.  He did, I was against it!  And we reminisced about the then District Council Leader Geoffrey Jaggard and his vision.  The day was all about the Racing Community and how Newmarket can capitalise more on being the world headquarters of Racing but without the decision taken by these two chaps all those year ago to rescue a tumbled down spooky old house and semi delicate yard, none of it would have been possible.  If you ever find yourself in Newmarket do go along as it’s a world class museum and the way it helps you understand of the science of Horse-racing is impressive. Not to mention the heritage and art which is just stunning.

On the national and international political front, it’s been a staggering year where the rule book has been ripped up.  You can see that Brexit is going to be the most complex, time consuming thing for our Government to get right and make sure our economy does not suffer more that it has too.  I suspect the history books will have a somewhat mixed view on David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister but I briefly met him at Felixstowe Docks 100 days from the Referendum and he spoke with passion and conviction that strangely was not the hallmark of the remain campaign which seemed to me to fail to make the points about access to the single market being vital to our economy and that the vast majority of those working in Britain from Europe where either here ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ style contributing to our industry or here raising their families and paying their taxes, i.e. contributing not taking British jobs.  The government and our new Prime Minister must find a way to get the best possible exit we can and that won’t be easy.

Internationally we will shortly watch the inauguration of a new American President and I recall the hope and expectation that hung in the air at President Obamas’, I suspect the world will watch with different feelings at President Trumps’.

Here in Suffolk I have had the pleasure to lead the County Council and the frustration of Devolution.  I say pleasure to lead the County Council because it is.  There is lots more to do and we are doing it but I am proud of the staff, the Cabinet and my group and how they have all risen to the challenge of significantly less Government funding and our demand that the Council lives within its means and maintains a sensible level of reserves.  As I look about the sector our cautious, prudent approach puts us in a place that is very different from some councils beyond Suffolk, there begins to be real concern that some councils may start to run out of money and fail to deliver front line services, I have often said that unlike the NHS, if councils run out of money the cheques don’t just carry on being honoured, staff will not get paid and services will fail, not here in Suffolk.  As a political party, we pledged and have delivered 7 years of 0% base Council Tax rises only putting up the Council tax to pay for the National Living Wage which everyone agrees is the right thing to do for the lowest paid workers in our society.  However I say a frustrating year in terms of Devolution because across Suffolk we can see how it can help us reshape Public Services and be a part of how we create a community that addresses the needs of our ageing population at the same time as investing in new infrastructure to accelerate growth and housing, which is vital for the quality of life we will want to see.  Yet at the end of the year Suffolk has no deal.  Cambridgeshire does but not Suffolk. The Public surveys, the business leaders and their respective trade bodies and all councils agree we want a Suffolk based Devolution deal, will we get one, it certainly won’t be for the want of trying and or effort.

Looking ahead… well that’s another blog!

If you have been kind enough to read this, may I take the opportunity to wish you and your family a very Happy, Healthy and Successful New Year.

Council Tax rises?

29.03.2013 SCC campaign 2013 0%, 0%, 0%, 0% Council tax pledge

My Row Heath campaign 2013 and Conservaitve Pledge of 0%, 0%, 0%, 0% Council tax rises

Last Thursday the DCLG SoS Sajid Javid put some flesh on the bones of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and made a series of announcements about the funding for next year for Local Government.  This is slightly strange as, most, some 97% of Councils signed up to the 4 years funding deal announced earlier this year in the previous Chancellors, George Osbourne’s Annual Budget Statement.  So you’d sort of think that was it for the year but that’s not how it works!

Confused? – well you should be as it is confusing.  When I first became a Councillor, I read a lengthy book called ‘A guide to Local Government Finances’, its sits on the shelf opposite me as I write this blog.  It was a difficult read but I got through it just, but I now know that the nature of the finance of Local Government is far more subtler than that book lead me to believe!

Essentially the revised offer centres around Adult Social Care and to some extent having worked on both the LGA lobby position on Health and Social Care Funding, given evidence to the Commons Local Government Select Committee on Social Care Funding and helped edit several County Council Network papers and letters lobbying government on this issue these past few months I am pleased that the warning are perhaps being heard.  Pleased not ecstatic as what was announced hardly amounted to the fundamental reforms we want to see.  Given the scale of the rising cost of an Aging population and the significant cuts all councillors are having to make a percentage point here and there, whilst welcomed is not going to address the fundamental point about money.

In the various press reports and comment this week I have tried to stress the government allowing Councils to charge you more, is not the same as your permission to charge you more.  I have also tried to get across that we the Conservatives at SCC are philosophically reluctant to take more of your hard-earned money than we absolutely must.  At the same time, local government is not the NHS where the cheques will be honoured irrespective of the massively overspend budget if we as a County Council do not have reserves and cash flow then the wages bill would not get paid.  So, it’s a balance and we carefully plan and check our budgets and reserves.

So we are planning to stick to our budget proposals and this coming year at the January Cabinet meeting and the Full Council in February we shall be proposing some savings, the modest use of reserves, the 2% National Adult Social Care Levy to pay for the increased costs of the National Living Wage and for the 7 year running a 0% rise in the base County Council tax. Making the council live within its means, protecting front line services and most importantly not treating your earned money as a pot we can simply dip into, is what we are about.

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