17:15 Thursday 2nd October 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
CHRIS MANN: Another of our big stories, an ongoing story actually, one that we discuss regularly: three Cambridgeshire councils have announced the next steps towards sharing services. South Cambs, Cambridge City and Huntingdonshire save hundreds of thousands of pounds by pooling their I.T. and legal provision. So, is this just the first step towards a Greater Cambridge unitary authority? Let’s find out. The men in charge are with me. Cllr Ray Manning, the Leader of South Cambs District Council, a Conservative of course. Ray, hello.
RAY MANNING: Hello there.
CHRIS MANN: Welcome. And how long have you been running the Council?
RAY MANNING: The Conservatives, since 2006.
CHRIS MANN: And how long have you had to start making cutbacks since? When did that .. ?
RAY MANNING: About 1896 I think.
CHRIS MANN: Yes. It’s that long. (LAUGHS)
RAY MANNING: Yes. I can’t ever remember a budget that wasn’t a reduction.
CHRIS MANN: And right now the demands on you are .. ? How much do you have to lose in the next few years?
RAY MANNING: We’ve got to save another million.
CHRIS MANN: Out of a budget of .. ?
RAY MANNING: Sixteen.
CHRIS MANN: Also with us is Cllr Jason Ablewhite. Hello Jason.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Good evening Chris.
CHRIS MANN: The Executive Leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, another Conservative controlled authority of course. Give us the picture as far as you’re concerned.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Financially or politically? Politically obviously we’ve been Conservative since 1976, so quite considerable longer than South Cambs. (LAUGHS) But we’re in exactly the same boat as everyone else. We need to save multiples of millions of pounds over the next five years, and we’re looking at new ways of working and new initiatives, and that’s why what we’re saying today is so important.
CHRIS MANN: And you’ve taken some tough measures already. You’ve had to let people go, look at services.
JASON ABLEWHITE: We have yes, like everyone else in local government. It’s been tough. The last five years, frankly, has been tough in local government, and we’ve seen a considerable reduction in our staff.
CHRIS MANN: Third member on the panel is Cllr Lewis Herbert, who became Leader of Cambridge City Council when Labour took control after the elections earlier this year. Hello Lewis.
LEWIS HERBERT: Hi.
CHRIS MANN: You inherited some problems, not unique to your council, but give us an idea of what Cambridge City have got to cut.
LEWIS HERBERT: Well we’ve cut about 30% since 2010 in terms of .. well we’ve had a cut of Government grants. We’re assuming basically that we’ll end up with virtually no Government grant in five years time.
CHRIS MANN: Whichever government it is?
LEWIS HERBERT: Probably. We can’t wholly predict what either government will do, but that’s the working assumption. We expect to have to cut £6 million in five years. This next year alone Chris we’ve got to cut £1.8 million. So we have to protect the services for residents. And to do that, working with Jason and Ray is one of the good news stories for Cambridge.
CHRIS MANN: You’ll be banished from the Conservative Party.
LEWIS HERBERT: Well they are. The last time I was in this studio with Jason we still had our rosettes almost.
JASON ABLEWHITE: We did.
CHRIS MANN: You were head to head the day after the election. But when you are in power, as you are now, it’s practical things.
LEWIS HERBERT: We’re here for the residents, and there’s a lot of people who really need us, and need those services. And so we’re particularly here for those people. There’s already been joint services. We’re already working with Ray on waste, and with Jason on CCTV. But we can go a lot further, so we see this, particularly the link-up on ICT. It’s called ICT, but that basically means all our systems start to be linked up, and that just has the opportunity to move further on. So it’s a great start, but there’s a lot more to do.
CHRIS MANN: Ray, when you first came into local government, how long ago .. ?
RAY MANNING: 2004. But I’ve been a parish councillor for about thirty years.
CHRIS MANN: That’s what I thought. Obviously people do protect their own nests, don’t they, their areas. people like to think of them as unique, although as I guess you’re finding out, there are lots of things that you can share. What is the future as far as you’re concerned? Where are we going with this?
RAY MANNING: The big thing about sharing is it’s not just saving money, though of course that’s important, but you also get resilience. If you’ve only got two people in a department and somebody is off sick, then it’s a real struggle. But if you’re sharing services, then somebody from Huntingdon or somebody from Cambridge can help out. So they say it improves resilience. That’s one other thing. And lastly it’s a good career move for our staff as well. If you actually are ambitious and you want to get on, working for a triple-council like this, running a department is a good career move and a step up.
CHRIS MANN: Jason, tell us what it’s been like for the staff. We mustn’t forget the many thousands of council workers who very often had to change their lives or even lose their jobs, adapt and all the rest of it. How tough has that been?
JASON ABLEWHITE: It’s been exceptionally tough for people who’ve been working in the public sector. But I think whereas historically the private sector has seen all of the downturn, all of the pain, I think local government is just picking up, just carrying on from where that is leaving off. Because people have been suffering tremendously through the recession in the private sector as well. Public sector I think is catching up. But it’s been tough, and it’s been tough on people that have always had a perception that when you go into local government it’s a job for life. Now clearly that’s no longer the case.
CHRIS MANN: With your slightly more Left look on things Lewis, would you agree with that?
LEWIS HERBERT: Well we need to work with our staff, and we involve the trade unions fully in the consultations. We’ve got some wonderful people working for the Council. they are expecting and know that there needs to be change. The commitment is to protect the front line services, and to protect as many jobs as we can. So we will take measures that protect them from the risk of immediate compulsory redundancies, and we’ll try and make these changes in a way that is an evolution.
CHRIS MANN: You’ve already said that you think that what you get from central government is going to go down further. So Ray, Jason, Lewis, in order to anticipate that, what about talks about a unitary authority, whether it’s based around Cambridge or Peterborough. Ray first.
RAY MANNING: Well .. we’re .. I don’t .. I’ve always said that politically I’m in favour of a unitary authority. But I actually think it’s moved on, and politicians now are talking more about a combined authority, which is come in with the City Deal for ourselves and Cambridge City. And if we’re sharing services, which we’re talking about now, it’s a lot easier to do one step at a time, integrate one service at a time and all this, rather than throwing all the bricks up in the air and then hoping they all fall down together.
CHRIS MANN: Yes or no for devolution for Greater Cambridge of course. That’s one way to look at it.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Well of course none of us really know what’s going to happen, following the Scottish question, in terms of devolution down to England and what that means and what that looks like for the future.
CHRIS MANN: The Prime Minister has promised, hasn’t he? Labour have backed it up.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Well we’ve seen it come and go before. We’ve seen previous Governments look very seriously at regional government and it never happened, never came to fruition. What we’re doing isn’t trying to second guess the future. What we’re doing is saying that our sovereignty is important to us, our boundaries are important to us. We very much see what we do as important on the ground, closer to the ground, within our own areas and our own expertise, and differences within our areas as well. This isn’t about sovereignty, and it’s not about politics. It’s not about Conservatives working with Labour. It’s about three councils coming together in order to protect services for the people that we represent.
CHRIS MANN: There’s too much bureaucracy. You’ve got the County Council as well. You’ve got other councils below that. There’s East Cambs to consider as well. Are there not just too many Lewis Herbert?
LEWIS HERBERT: In principle we’ve backed unitary for about seven years at the City. What we recognise though is that it has to be done by consent. So there has to be agreement in the villages, and there would have to be a a lot more work. I think what this does is it actually demonstrates that we do share the same common interest. And Greater Cambridge may not extend much into Huntingdonshire, I don’t know what Jason’s view is of that. But South Cambridgeshire is our only neighbour. We are completely surrounded by it. And the great thing on the City Deal and on planning is that we know that there’s a shared destiny on these services and we’re joining them up. Different needs, different needs in the city, different needs in the villages.
CHRIS MANN: But there’s just so much you can cut, isn’t there? There will come a limit where there’ll be nothing left.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Well I think that out of our three councils in the county, I think we’re the best placed financially. I can say that.
CHRIS MANN: That’s Huntingdonshire.
JASON ABLEWHITE: Yes. With confidence. we’ve got two good partners financially as well. And I think that when you look at the cost of setting up a unitary authority, it’s huge. And OK, there’s always the argument that you’ll get the money back eventually. But what we’re doing is more instant. Sharing services, collaborating, sharing staff ..
CHRIS MANN: And there will be more of this gentlemen. (ALL CONCUR)
RAY MANNING: This is only the first step.
CHRIS MANN: Thank you all for joining me. Appreciate it. That’s Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge City Council, Ray Manning, the Leader of South Cambs District, and Jason Ablewhite, Executive Leader of Huntingdonshire. Thank you all gentlemen.