Cambridgeshire council tax rise agreed but problems lie ahead

fred_ginger08:08 Wednesday 18th February 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Council tax in Cambridgeshire is set to rise by 1.99%. The increase comes as the County Council faces £150 million of cuts over the next five years. The rise in council tax was agreed yesterday by the Council after being approved by the committee which sets the budget, but UKIP councillors voted against the rise, and Labour councillors abstained. Joining me now to talk more about this are three county councillors, Paul Bullen for UKIP, Paul Sales for Labour and we’re going to start with Kilian Bourke for the Liberal Democrat party. So Kilian, this increase in council tax, it will put more pressure on people’s pockets. How do you justify it?
KILIAN BOURKE: Well it’s on an average Band D property, and that’s going to be an increase of 43p per week. And the reality is that if council tax had been frozen, there would have had to be further cuts to bus services, to children’s centres, to social care. That would be a terrible decision in my opinion. And the Council did a survey, and the online survey showed that 78% of people would be prepared to have some level of increase, and 54% of people supported an increase of 1.99% or above. So it’s justified.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. Which department are you most worried about for this budget? Where is going to really feel the pressure of these cuts?
KILIAN BOURKE: It’s very simple. It’s social care. The sustainability of public services and the NHS depends on the Council’s children and adult social care services being able on an increasingly tight budget to provide those services. And also actually the NHS is providing an integrated older people’s service, and that social care service and the NHS’s new over-65 service, these two things have got to work, because if they don’t, we’re going to have real problems in the years to come.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Now this council tax rise wasn’t passed unanimously. The UKIP group voted against it. Paul Bullen is from that party. Why did you vote against it Paul?

PAUL BULLEN: It’s always been our policy to vote against rising year on year on council tax.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So have you objected to this rise as it’s passed through the committee system?
PAUL BULLEN: We have done. We’ve stated categorically from the first day that we were elected that we would oppose further increases in council tax. And indeed this year there was no need for an increase in council tax, because this council has realised only last month an additional £1.935 million which wasn’t in the business plan, and which can be used to offset the difference between the freeze grants we’ve received from Government for freezing council tax and the additional income we need to balance the budget for this year.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And where’s that money come from?
PAUL BULLEN: That money has come from £1.37 million from council tax receipts that we didn’t anticipate getting, half a million from revenue support grants, an additional amount from Government we didn’t know, £127,000 from business rates compensation grants. The total amount is £1.935 million, and in fact it’ll only cost us just over £2 million to freeze council tax for this year.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So Kilian, what do you make of that? You didn’t have to put this rise into place.
KILIAN BOURKE: Well of course no-one has to put the rise in place. There was a choice. The public supported, based on a survey, increasing it. But if we had not increased council tax, it would have meant that we had £2 million fewer every year. It would have had to come out of general reserves in future years, if they were there. But I think the budget is on the border of not being deliverable anyway, so I think the consequence would have been that there would not have been enough money to provide the basic services that we need.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Talk more about that. Why do you feel it is on the brink of being undeliverable?
KILIAN BOURKE: Well because let’s face it, there’s a massive deficit nationally. No parliamentary party is saying that they’re going to give local government lots more money. So the biggest cuts have been concentrated on local government. Budgets like the NHS have comparatively been protected, whereas local government has faced a 40% reduction in funding over the terms of this parliament. So we’re struggling to make ends meet, but actually I think there is massive credit due to the Council, to all councils in fact who are holding it together. And I think local government is actually doing a good job.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Let’s bring in Paul Sales, who has been sitting patiently from the Labour Party.
PAUL SALES: Morning.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Do you agree with Kilian Paul that the Council has done pretty well with the budget this year, that they deserve credit where it’s due?
PAUL SALES: Well I agree that they deserve credit, but the fact of the matter is a third of the budget is being lost over four years on account of the Liberal Democrat/Tory austerity, and yesterday we say the Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition hard at work in Cambridge hitting the people who are most in need of services. And that’s the reason we couldn’t support it. There was a need to set a budget, and we didn’t want to prejudice the budget in any way. So the best course of action for us was to abstain.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And then you say it’s the best course of action, but what good really comes of abstaining Paul?
PAUL SALES: What good comes of abstaining is that you can’t seriously expect the Labour Party to support cuts of the sort that are going to happen in the next few years. You can’t really expect us to support that as a result of austerity imposed from Westminster by the Liberal Democrats.
DOTTY MCLEOD: What are you anticipating then over the coming years as these cuts are put into place?
PAUL SALES: Well I think you’re going to get to the point where the local authorities will be unable to deliver their services. It’s as simple as that. There’s a lot of statutory requirements, and they just won’t be able to do it, because there won’t be the resources to do it, either in terms of materials or in manpower to actually go out and do the things they’re supposed to be doing.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Paul Bullen is that something that you anticipate as well?
PAUL BULLEN: Well to be perfectly honest Dotty none of us know what the future holds. We don’t know what devolved government there will be if any, and where the finances are going to come from. We don’t know how much any grants we will receive from any future government after the General Election. We don’t know how much of our business rates we’ll keep, whether we’ll still get the New Homes Bonus. And nobody at this moment in time can answer those questions honestly. And we in my opinion as a council cannot afford to sit still and wait for the answers. We’ve got to be more innovative. We’ve got to be more financially astute, be more market orientated, and above all become more commercially driven. And this Council does have a huge asset base which we could use to create revenue streams for the future. We have access to cheap funding which we could use to create revenue streams for the funding. We can’t sit still. We’ve got to change how we run local government, and we can’t rely on the council tax payer to continually pay more and more every year.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Paul Sales, do you agree that there is more the Council could be doing to bring in money?
PAUL SALES: I actually agree with Paul Bullen on this, and I think that the other thing that will almost certainly happen is you’re going to get a massive reorganisation of local government. And you’re already seeing that happen in an ad hoc way. And really it needs to be done in an organised way. But I can’t see any evidence of central government being interested in participating in a major reorganisation of local government, because that costs money as well. But I think there are too many councils, and too many councillors, an that’s going to be a major problem. That’s the way things will go. You’ll see authorities merging with each other, and there’s a lot of evidence that that’s already happening.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Gentlemen, thank you very much for all being with me this morning. That’s councillor Paul Bullen from the UK Independence Party, Kilian Bourke for the Liberal Democrats, and Paul Sales for the Labour Party. We did ask to speak to somebody from the Conservative Party on the Council. Nobody was available.