Cambs Budget 2014 – A Big Day at Shire Hall

shire_hall08:07 Tuesday 18th February 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[D]OTTY MCLEOD: Shire Hall, the headquarters of Cambridgeshire County Council and an iconic listed building in the centre of Cambridge, should be sold. That’s according to one Liberal Democrat councillor, in the face of cuts to the County Council’s budget. So as the Government reduces the amount it’s giving to councils, is it time to sell off the silverware to protect the vulnerable in our county? Maurice Leake is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats. He says places like Shire Hall should be sold.
MAURICE LEAKE: We’re seeing consistent cuts in the amount of staff that we have at Shire Hall and across the County Council, and there comes a time when you don’t need as many buildings as you’ve got. Shire Hall is a very expensive building to maintain. It needs an awful lot of work doing to it if it’s going to be energy efficient. It’s got a G rating, and anybody who’s bought a fridge recently will now that you’re looking for an A, A+, A++, and here we have it at the very bottom of the list. This means that our council tax money is just going out of the windows at Shire Hall, rather than being used for frontline services.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Now we have in the studio with us Martin Curtis, the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who was shaking his head throughout that. Martin will be talking to you in just a second, but first I want to turn to Paul Bullen, who is the Leader of the UKIP group at Cambridgeshire County Council. So Paul, what do you think of this idea? Sell off Shire Hall. Is it a good plan ?

PAUL BULLEN: Good morning Dotty. No I don’t think selling off any of the Council’s assets is a good plan. I think we need to rethink the whole strategy.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So where would you find the money?
PAUL BULLEN: We currently have on one side the Liberal Democrats saying sell everything, and that will make up the money that we need to generate. On the other side we’ve got the Conservatives saying no, let’s just load more council tax on the council taxpayers of Cambridgeshire. We’re saying that the County Council has tens of millions of pounds worth of assets, and we should make those assets pay.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So what are you suggesting?
PAUL BULLEN: Well for example the Shire Hall site, yes there is redundancy in there. There is spare capacity. We’re saying we should look at using that spare capacity, maybe letting off part of it, perhaps knocking down the Castle Court site and building flats where we could receive the income, rather than selling off, and then once the crown jewels have gone you can never get them back again.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And do you have other suggestions in how money could be saved. £38 million. It’s going to take a lot of rent to make that up.
PAUL BULLEN: Well we do. We’d need to get real about this. There are proposals at the moment on the Council’s portfolio to sell some property to developers to build additional housing. We’re saying why sell it. Why not become a housing association ourselves? We could use that land. We could build it, and we could realise the rent. There are empty properties within Cambridgeshire at the moment. With prudential borrowing we could buy those properties and rent them out to those people who can’t afford to live in the city and work in the city, and again realise the rent from that. We could realise an 8% to 10% return on investments, and when our borrowing is only at 4%, from a business perspective, we can with the assets that we currently own, make enough money to stop increasing council tax year on year.
DOTTY MCLEOD: That’s Paul Bullen who is the Leader of the UK Independence Party’s group at Cambridgeshire County Council. Now let’s talk to Martin Curtis, who is the Leader of the Council, a Conservative-led council of course. So Martin, you’re shaking your head. You seem spitting angry at quite a lot of those comments from both Maurice Leake from the LibDems and Paul from UKIP. Why are you so cross at what they’re saying?
MARTIN CURTIS: Well Paul Bullen as an example is saying we need to rent out space in Shire Hall. He’s saying that’s a UKIP initiative. He’s saying that we should become a housing landlord and that’s a UKIP initiative. I would say anybody that can at the moment, head over to Castle Court and the Shire Hall site today, and they will see signs up showing that we are already in the process of marketing Castle Court. And so what Paul is trying to do is steal actually projects and programmes that we’ve already got. We’ve already put through Cabinet programmes to use where we are going to develop on our land. Rather than just sell that land to developers, we’ve already put programmes to say actually what we’re going to do is build houses and become a landlord ourselves. So we’re already doing those things. And so for Paul to sit there and say UKIP are doing this is somewhat alarming. But also from Maurice’s perspective he talked about our G rating. Maurice knows that that G rating is an old rating. We’ve done quite a lot of work in Shire Hall to actually make it .. it’s not perfect; it’s a difficult building .. but to make it more energy efficient. He knows the reason that G rating has not been upgraded is because we won’t invest in tens of thousands of pounds just to review an energy rating. But let me talk about the Shire .. we believe that our programme to market Castle Court will actually generate enough revenue year on year so that over five years we would cover what we would gain from selling Shire Hall. And then beyond that we would still get revenue year on year. Maurice talked about long term solutions. But actually what he said was something that was very short term that would cost Cambridgeshire dear in the long term.
DOTTY MCLEOD: What about the County farms, which are huge swathes of land across Cambridgeshire. You could make a lot of money by selling those.
MARTIN CURTIS: You could make a lot of money from selling them, but actually what they do is generate a really really secure form of income for the County Council, a level of income that’s actually increasing. Now we will selectively sell off or develop on some of our land where it fits in with district council plans. And of course we will do that. But the reality about the County farms estate, first of all it’s a good steady income for us. And the second part of that it actually offers something to the Cambridgeshire in terms of our ability to develop farmers and allow farmers access to reasonable rent as well. So we’re doing good things around our county farm estates. Selling it off, this is what Maurice said to Paul Stainton a little while ago. He talked and agreed that selling off the County farms estate was a sticking plaster. He agreed with Paul that when that money is gone it’s gone. That’s not a long term approach for County finances. What is is the work we’re doing to generate long term revenue and increase revenue for the Council.
DOTTY MCLEOD: But what you’re also doing is having to cut services.
MARTIN CURTIS: Absolutely.
DOTTY MCLEOD: You’re having to close museums. You’re having to cut back on the funding you give to the dial-a-ride services. You’re having to cut back on the winter gritting budget. Would you not wish that you didn’t have to do that?
MARTIN CURTIS: Of course. But the reality is that we have saved over the last three years, since 2011/12, we’ve saved about £124 million though being more efficient. The reality is that we’ve got another £149 million to save over the next four years. We can’t duck that, and actually we can’t pretend that all these things the Opposition are talking about are going to deal with our problem. It’s £149 million we’ve got to find. So what we do have to do is everything we can to generate revenue. But we also have to balance council tax levels with the services we provide to vulnerable people in Cambridgeshire. And that’s the issue for us. And we will also accelerate the work we’ve done on prevention, where our re-ablement service has saved over £5 million over the last three years through preventing people’s conditions from worsening, where we’ve bucked a national trend in terms of the number of people coming into care, and in driving down the cost of our care placements. And we’ve saved about £6 million. And that’s stuff that saves us money and is actually good for our residents, and we need to do more of that as well. But we can’t duck, and no longer can we duck from the fact that we have to make tough decisions.
DOTTY MCLEOD: You’ve said from the start of this budget process that there’s going to be some really difficult decisions. Do you feel certain with what you have in front of you today going into this meeting that the most vulnerable are going to be safe from further cuts?
MARTIN CURTIS: Wherever we can our priority is to protect the most vulnerable. And one of the things we have done is towards the end of this process we found as an example that district councils have collected more council tax than we forecast. And we’ve actually added some of that funding back in, so that we can put some back into some of the services where we were uncomfortable with the cuts we’ve had to make. Where we haven’t as an example had to spend as much money on winter gritting this year, one of the things we’ve done is put that funding into a pot so we can defer the cuts to winter gritting that are coming in in a couple of years time. But the other thing we need to do in Cambridgeshire is drive our economy forward. We’re financially rewarded for building the economy in Cambridgeshire now, and we need to build on that and make sure that we generate revenue for the Council, by making sure that Cambridgeshire’s potential in terms of its economy is realised.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Martin we’ll have to leave it there. That is Cllr Martin Curtis, the Conservative Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council. A big day ahead at Shire Hall.