17:07 Monday 25th November 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[C]HRIS MANN: Next year’s proposed budget for our county council has just been published, and there are yet more cost savings and cutbacks, on top of the 1.99% rise in council tax that they’d already flagged up. The minority Conservative administration says it has no choice, because the central government has removed so much of its funding, forcing it to save £149 million over five years, on top of the £74 million saved in the last two. Their Leader Martin Curtis warns in an extended interview with me of even tougher times ahead. He joined me earlier, on the day that superfast broadband was switched on in the County. But first that budget. I asked him to sum it up.
MARTIN CURTIS: We’re having to make about £32 million worth of savings this year, and that’s despite putting council tax up by 1.99%. That’s what we’re proposing. Within that there’s a lot of very very difficult decisions to be made, not least because a lot of the easier decisions have already been made, and the easier savings have already been taken.
CHRIS MANN: So year after year you’ve had the squeeze put on you by the Government. Have you now reached the stage where yes, you’ve cut the backroom staff, you’ve cut the management. Now you’re having to take really tough decisions which affect the standard of service to people?
MARTIN CURTIS: We will have to make changes and make .. I’m going to call them that .. cuts that people will notice. Of course we will always keep looking at how we can make changes so they don’t impact the front line. But the opportunities to do that get less and less and less. And just as an example, we’ve just had a peer review team come into Cambridgeshire and look at the functions of us. They described our management structure in Cambridgeshire as very very lean, and said that we’re carrying risks as a result of that.
CHRIS MANN: Every cut hurts somebody.
MARTIN CURTIS: That’s absolutely right. One of the difficulties of what we’re going to do is every single cut that people will see, they’re going to say to us, this is too far. You need to focus somewhere else. Then when we go somewhere else, somebody will say the same thing to us. Every cut is too painful for somebody, and that hurts me as a councillor. It’s not what you’re here to lead and do. But what we’ve got to do is just try and focus on the issues that matter to us, and matter to our county, and impact on them the least.
CHRIS MANN: You’re a Conservative of course. Why don’t you tell your Conservative Coalition Government enough is enough, leave it alone?
MARTIN CURTIS: We’re trying to get that message across, and I’m doing a lot of work on that at the moment. So I’ve written to David Cameron. I’ve explained Cambridgeshire’s situation, and also set out to them exactly how local government has been treated compared to other Government departments, where the savings that we have had to make are far greater than anywhere else. I’ve done that bit. We’re also working through the county councils network to get the message out to Government as a combined voice of county councils to say, actually, you know, you need to think about what you’re doing here.
CHRIS MANN: Let’s go through some of the things individually. The biggest element of your budget, and it has been for some time, is adult social care. You’re cutting that back. Are old folk going to go without meals, without care, without somewhere to stay and be warm?
MARTIN CURTIS: No. Our priority with adult social care, there are some areas where we are investing in adult social care, and this is the problem. We’re not only facing reductions in Government grant, but actually a significant increase in the number of older people in Cambridgeshire. Those two interests really conflict. But what we’re trying to do with adult social care is invest in prevention, so that people are able to stay longer in their own homes, which is where people tell us they want to be, and where we can do things that prevent the worsening of conditions, and try and drive our costs down through doing that. It would be easy just to make cuts in non-essential areas, but the more we can do early to stop people’s conditions worsening, the better it is for them, and the better it is for our finances. So we think that’s the right thing to do.
CHRIS MANN: There’s been a reduction in children’s services. Does that mean that for instance single mums will no longer be able to put their kids into somewhere where their children can be looked after?
MARTIN CURTIS: Well it’s children’s centres we’re looking at, and we’re consulting at the moment on the 22% reduction in spend in children’s centres. And that is not an easy thing to do. But some of the feedback we’ve had is that compared to other local authorities, our provision in children’s centres is higher. Now we should be proud of that. But we should also be realistic and say we can’t afford to have gold-plated services any more. So yes, we’ve got to go and make some changes. We’re not looking at children’s centre closures, and we are looking at can we manage our children’s centres and reduce management costs. But the reality is some of what we provide in our children’s centres is going to have to be reduced.
CHRIS MANN: So is that a cut in staff, and a cut in hours perhaps, and fewer children looked after?
MARTIN CURTIS: There will be a reduction in staff. We don’t want to go into detail about the amount of reduction because we’re still consulting on that, but inevitably we can’t take this sort of money out of our budget without affecting staff, which is a shame actually because we have a great staff.
CHRIS MANN: In a rural county like Cambridgeshire, transport is so important. You’ve been under fire for the way that bus services have gone. Are you going to put more buses on there, more services on the roads?
MARTIN CURTIS: No. What we’re going to do is continue with the work we’re doing with Cambridgeshire Future Transport. So as we reduce funding to subsidise buses, consultation with communities to say, actually, what is it you do want. So we can look at alternatives and try and provide alternative means of transport, without the old crude method of basically sending empty buses around the county, which happened all too often.
CHRIS MANN: I understand you’re also cutting back, or looking at cutting back the home school transport for some further education students. That might be the difference between them going on to do more in life and not.
MARTIN CURTIS: It’s a difficult one again, and we’ll try and be as imaginative as we can around that, and our whole home to school transport policies and areas of delivery. So one of the things we have had success from in the last few years is driving down the cost of our contracts. We will continue to do that, and we’ve been quite ambitious about the targets we’re setting to reduce the cost of our contracts. But actually we can’t just do nothing, and this is the whole point about every part of this. We’ve got to do something that is going to affect the front line. It’s not affordable without.
CHRIS MANN: Looking ahead, you’re flagging up in a year’s time the winter gritting service will be cut back. That’s dangerous, isn’t it?
MARTIN CURTIS: I don’t think it’s dangerous, but it’s certainly not a perfect situation. It’s another area where we’ve been told our services are gold plated. People tell us when they cross the boundary from other counties into Cambridgeshire that they notice the standard of winter gritting significantly improves. Again it’s something we should be proud of, but the reality is we can’t afford to keep doing those things. So we’re going to have to review it. Of course, if we can do it and be more efficient, we will look at it and we’ll be imaginative about how we do it. But the reality is people will probably see the impact.
CHRIS MANN: £149 million over five years you’ve got to save. So to pay for that, partly, you’ve put the council tax up by as high as you can.
MARTIN CURTIS: Absolutely.
CHRIS MANN: Why?
MARTIN CURTIS: Well we think it’s right. One of the things we do as we run up to setting up our budget is to go out and say to people, do a thing called a YouChoose survey, what are your priorities? What are your view on council tax? And the message comes back that they would accept a small increase in council tax if it helps support some of the services that people care about most.
CHRIS MANN: Now it’s all important, just like it would be for a household, that you have some money in the bank. The Council has reserves, but they’re now dangerously low. Am I right?
MARTIN CURTIS: Well the peer challenge that we had made a specific comment about the low level of reserves in Cambridgeshire. And people hear nationally Government Ministers talking about council needing to address and deal with the shortcomings through reducing the reserves. But the reality is we’re carrying more risk, because of the increase in the number of older people in the County, and because of the way we try and deliver things. And we have low reserves. And so feeding services through reserves is just not an option any more.
CHRIS MANN: We’ve talked before on the programme about the idea of having a unitary authority. There are lots of councils below you, and lots of other organisations in the County. What about a dramatic move like that? Would that help to save money? Would that make a difference?
MARTIN CURTIS: It would save money, nowhere near enough. And the point I’ve made as a county council leader is that I will not drive that agenda, because I think if I try and drive it from what people will see as the top down, it will be a guarantee that it didn’t happen. So as far as I’m concerned if the districts want to enter into negotiations about that, we’ll be willing to talk about it. But let’s not pretend that’s a panacea. It will not save anything like the sort of money that we need to save over the next four to five years. And actually implementing a unitary authority would cost as well.
CHRIS MANN: For the overall effect of what you’ve been telling me what your budget says, it looks to me like local government in Cambridgeshire is at a crossroads. This is a really vital time, where the cuts that you’re going to have to make will possibly affect a generation of services and care.
MARTIN CURTIS: We are really really trying hard to make sure that what we do doesn’t affect most vulnerable in Cambridgeshire. We’re also trying to be and continue to be ambitious about driving our economy forwards, because that does reduce demand on services. All the evidence says that. So what we’re trying to do is maintain a long term view on how we drive our economy as well. But the reality is that this stuff is going to have an impact. If we were able to take this sort of money out without having an impact, people would be right to ask questions of us actually.
CHRIS MANN: Just finally, and on a happier note, superfast broadband. You cut the ribbon . You switched it on today.
MARTIN CURTIS: Absolutely. And this is the point about investing in our economy and our future. It was great to do that today. It was great to see so many people from Grafham actually turn out, including some of our broadband champions. But the popularity of our superfast broadband just shows exactly why we have to keep being ambitious about our economy, because people want us to do that, deliver the sort of infrastructure that secures our future.
CHRIS MANN: Martin Curtis, thank you for joining me.
MARTIN CURTIS: Thank you.