Cambridgeshire budget proposals – Leaders react

10:21 Tuesday 27th October 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

SUE DOUGAN: Cambridgeshire County Council as you’ve been hearing today has announced its budget proposals for the next financial year. The authority has to save over £40 million. Here’s the savings being proposed. Over £9 million to be taken from the care budget that supports vulnerable adults and older people; £1.4 million taken from supporting bus services across Cambridgeshire; the mobile library service could be removed. That would save £160,000; over half a million to be taken from the winter maintenance budget; further cuts to school crossing patrols, libraries, children’s centres. Even things like street parking fees could increase in Cambridge. We have with us today the Conservative councillor Steve Count, who is Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. Steve good morning.
STEVE COUNT: Good morning Dotty.
SUE DOUGAN: Good morning. It’s Sue actually. Good morning.
STEVE COUNT: Oh sorry Sue.
SUE DOUGAN: That’s quite all right. Ashley Walsh is alongside us as well, the new Labour Leader on Cambridgeshire County Council. Ashley hello.
SUE DOUGAN: We’ve got Pete Reeve joining us from UKIP as well. Pete good morning.
PETER REEVE: Good morning.
SUE DOUGAN: I thank you all for joining us here on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Let’s start with you Steve first of all. As Leader of the County Council, what were your reactions when these budgets were announced, when this figure was achieved?
STEVE COUNT: Well I think I’ve been along for the journey for the last five years, formerly as finance portfolio holder, and now as Leader of the County Council, and I’ve known where we’ve been going as have the other parties. And we’ve known exactly what was going to come out. We know that for years now we’ve been trying to do efficiency savings, and try as they call it pick off the low hanging fruit. But eventually we’ve got to the point where we now have to look much more at what’s ending up on the front line and whether it can be delivered in other ways. But the money has to be stripped out. We need £41 million to be stripped out to balance our budget.
SUE DOUGAN: I think what we’ve had most reaction to today Steve is the £9 million figure from the care budget that supports those who are vulnerable, adults or older people in an aging population, and a population where people have ever greater needs. That seems like a massive amount.
STEVE COUNT: Yes. It is a very large amount. The CFA budget, the Children Families and Adults budget, is about 70% to 80% of our budget in totality. To try and find the level of savings we need without going there, it’s not possible. They have made their share of savings every single year to date, just as the other directorates have done, but we literally have nowhere left to turn. But having said that, they will be looking very carefully at those plans, those £9 million worth of savings, to try and impact the least, to protect the most vulnerable, and those most at risk in there.
SUE DOUGAN: Are you saying that all other measures were looked at before this figure was settled on?
STEVE COUNT: This figure isn’t settled on yet. It’s what I’m talking about. These proposals are going to committees. The committees will look at them in much much greater detail. That process continues until February of next year, when it goes to Full Council. And there will be a chance for everybody to examine these in minutiae. But what I am saying is that to get to this point here we really have been looking at everything across the board, and trying to find the services that our communities want and require and we have statutory need for the most. But the savings have to come out.
SUE DOUGAN: I’ll read you what Pete in Upwell has to say. He says: “We’re supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world, yet we can’t afford care for our elderly. It seems yet again that the elderly, the poor, the infirm will suffer more than most.” He says, “I find it really unacceptable. Whichever way you look at it, it’s gross financial mismanagement by our government and our councils. The country to me at the moment can only be described as in a shambles.” Were you expecting so hard a reaction from some parts of the population ?
STEVE COUNT: And that was coming from …?
SUE DOUGAN: That’s Pete.
STEVE COUNT: Peter Reeve the Leader of UKIP. So this is ..
SUE DOUGAN: No no no. That’s our listener Pete in Upwell, just to be clear.
STEVE COUNT: (LAUGHS) We have different Peters. Apologies.
SUE DOUGAN: There’s a lot of Petes in Cambridge. (THEY LAUGH)
STEVE COUNT: No. I mean if you look at what the county council has done over the last few years, we are at the forefront of saving efficiency savings. We’ve made a really good job of trying to protect the front line. We are co-founders of LGSS which is the largest UK shared service provider in the public realm. And we’ve recently shared chief executives, which is actually the largest position in the UK that’s being shared as far as I know. We’ve come out of buildings which we ‘re trying to either sell or get revenue out of. We’re working at five to seven desks for ten people. We are very efficient. The thing is Cambridgeshire was extremely efficient when the cuts started to come along anyway. So that put us in a position where it’s very difficult to keep managing.
SUE DOUGAN: Yes. And Cambridgeshire County Council to be fair isn’t in isolation in having to make such big budgetary changes.
STEVE COUNT: No. No. This is a .. the local government has had a lot of its finances stripped out. We’ve had 40% over the last five years. We’re at the forefront of taking the brunt of Government cuts. But I would say to Government, I know you have to balance the books, but we keep making the point that Cambridgeshire has been poorly funded in the past before this started. And therefore we’re affected to a much greater deal. There are no measures that we’ve seen at the moment where we can be more efficient, but we have until February, and we will continue working with our partners to look at it. A lot of these savings were also saying the communities want them. Let’s see if we can work together in a way that delivers them, whilst the County Council has to remove the funding.
SUE DOUGAN: And you’ve looked at that in the past, haven’t you? You’ve been in partnership in some areas with Northamptonshire, haven’t you?
STEVE COUNT: Yes. We’re still in partnership with Northamptonshire. That’s the partnership working I’m talking about. If you look at our shared Chief Executive; we share the Director of Public Health with Peterborough, and we’re looking at the teams there whether there can be any more done. We’re talking about partnerships with communities. I know that when we first decided to move in some funding from the libraries budget a lot of communities stepped forward, and we’ve been able to keep with their help some of these libraries open. Otherwise we’d have faced closure maybe three, four years ago. The truth of the matter is the money’s running out, and we’re having to go back to the communities on a lot of these measures and say, is there a way you can help us through this?
SUE DOUGAN: Shall we keep up the autumnal imagery, because you talk there about trimming the lower hanging fruit from the branches, and then you’ve had no choice. You’ve had to go in and make more radical cuts from the growth above. Ashley Walsh is listening, the new Leader of Labour on Cambridgeshire County Council. You’ve heard Ashley what Steve’s had to say. They’ve ridden with the pressures over the last couple of years. They’ve thought very long and hard about where these cuts and budgetary measures have to fall. And this is the hard decision they’ve had to make.
ASHLEY WALSH: Well I have a lot of time for Steve and the Conservative Group at the County Council, because they are not happy about having to do these cuts. We’ve had to save what is now getting on towards £300 million since 2010. The problem is that is other groups suggest alternatives it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, because Government won’t allow us to raise council tax, and it’s reducing our national financial grant, and it’s expecting us to make these cuts while Cambridgeshire is the fastest growing county in the country. We’re held up from all directions. So I have a lot of time for Steve and the Conservative Group because they don ‘t agree with the position that the Conservatives nationally have put us in . And we try and work together the best we can in what is an absolutely terrible situation, as your listener earlier on pointed out.
SUE DOUGAN: You concede that it’s a terrible situation. There are pressures from all areas, and Cambridgeshire as I’ve said isn’t in isolation. What would you have done differently Ashley?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well the budget has not yet been finalised. This has been the first announcement of what the officers think would be the places to go next. It will be finalised in February. So what I’ll be seeking to do now is using the County’s financial wherewithal to try and get the Treasury and George Osborne to accept that we can’t have a 2% limit on our council tax, and not to make further major cuts to our national government grant. That’s the only way out of this situation now.
SUE DOUGAN: We’ve got Pete Reeve listening as well from UKIP. Pete, thank you for bearing with us through all of that. What were your reactions when these measures were announced yesterday?
PETER REEVE: Well of course we’ve all been working on this for some time, so none of this is a surprise. I agree with the other two speakers actually. I think with the new governance arrangements, it’s no longer the case in Cambridgeshire that you have a Conservative Cabinet making these sorts of decisions, and everyone else criticising them. We accept we’re all in this together, and actually where I agree with the other two speakers is this is entirely led by Government. Now we’ve got solutions. We’re all working on solutions, largely around building new revenue streams, and working with communities to try and offset some of these cuts. But that isn’t the whole solution . The realty is anyone who voted Conservative in the last General Election is involved in this decision . They voted for a party that is choosing ideologically to put £55 million a day into the EU, choosing not to cut big Government departments as much as it’s cutting local government. And the reality is, not just for Cambridgeshire but right across the country, that the essential services that the most vulnerable people use and need in our country are now going to be cut and slashed across the country. That’s what a Conservative government have decided is the future of this country. And we say it’s wrong, and so do many of the other parties. And so do the Conservatives in local government.
SUE DOUGAN: Let’s put that to Steve. Because Steve there might be those listening who see this as part of the continuum between what’s happening with say tax credits on a national scale, that whole debate that’s rumbling on at the moment. Roy in Brampton says: “Has Steve thought of going to other Tory controlled councils like Peterborough, Fenland, South Cambridgeshire, teaming up with them?” And he says: ” Isn’t there safety in numbers, going to central government and saying enough is enough. We can’t make these savings. We do need a bit more money.” Couldn’t you team up with your colleagues? More clout?
STEVE COUNT: Just to be correct here. We’re not a Conservative led authority. We are a minority led committee based system. And that’s the same as Peterborough. So it’s not a case of going to Peterborough which is Conservative led. They’re exactly the same as us. We have all represented ourselves to Government, and said that the funding for this area is inextricably linked to historical decisions that are wrong. And because we’re so efficient to start off with, that’s why we’re hurting so much around here. We have had some success with the help of our MPs, with the help of the Cambridge City MP, all the MPs throughout the area, South Cambs, Huntingdon, in terms of the education budget that we both control. But it still leaves them and us very much at the bottom of the pile in where we get our money from Government. Now I don’t disagree with the concept that overall we have to live within our means. And I think the Government is absolutely right to try and do something about that. But I do think that we have a strong case here in Cambridgeshire, particularly as we are looked at as one of the economic drivers for the future, to try and get our funding right.
SUE DOUGAN: All right. Steve, thank you very much. And Ashley, let’s go back to you for a moment. You say you’re in broad agreement that there’s pressures on, and the cuts have to fall somewhere, there have to be savings somewhere. Will you be voting in favour?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well as I say the budget is a long process. We’re only at the start actually of deciding. We will see the final proposals and we’ll look at them as they come. We have alternative suggestions which we are putting in the committee. Depending on how many of them are accepted. The two key tests for the Labour Group are will this cut make it harder to give equality in the country, and will these cuts increase poverty. And if we can’t marry our consciences with that then we won ‘t support.
SUE DOUGAN: All right. Ashley Walsh, thank you very much. And Pete Reeve, same question for you really. On behalf of UKIP, will you be voting in support, or pushing for further changes?
PETER REEVE: Well I think everyone .. we’ve got to produce a balanced budget, so there’s going to be tough decisions that will be made. Some elements we’ve already voted against, such as switching off streetlights. That’s a policy that the UKIP party is the only one who voted against. But actually the reality is really tough decisions have to be made. I’m really proud though at how many community groups are stepping up to the mark in terms of raising money externally, and finding alternative ways to run services such as libraries. I’m working with community groups to try and say, actually, is we can’t afford to run them through the Council, is there another way to run libraries, whether it’s with volunteers or community groups, to make sure we keep the service, even if we lose the budget. And for me that’s the important angle. And we really do need to be very open. Communities have to step up to the mark. We have to be open to change the way we work. No longer can the County Council control everything. We have to give things over to communities and say actually, we need your help. I need your help to make our community work. And that’s the plea I think all of us are putting out there.
SUE DOUGAN: There’s a phrase for that. I’m sure I’ve heard this before. Big Society. Yes. Thank you very much Pete Reeve and the rest joining us this morning here on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Pete Reeve from UKIP, Ashley Walsh new Leader of Labour on Cambridgeshire County Council. And Steve Count who’s the Leader of course of Cambridgeshire County Council. Thank you all for your thoughts and reactions today here at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.