08:20 Thursday 28th January 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgshire
DOTTY MCLEOD: Let’s return to the subject of council tax. Would you pay more of it if it meant social care services in the county faced fewer cuts? Would you be happy to pay a little bit more each year? In last year’s Autumn Statement, the Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to let councils increase council tax by 2% if they spent that money on social care. This in the face of continuing cuts that threaten social care services. Richard O’Leary is from the GMB union. I spoke to him earlier. He says there’s only one option.
RICHARD O’LEARY: It’s a very complex question. I think our general view is they have no option but to implement this, and that’s because as you’ve already said earlier in your report, local government has been affected more than any area of the public sector with the cuts since 2010. If you take the national figure, local authorities have lost 51% of their budget in those six years, and Cambridgeshire is one of the hardest affected authorities in the country.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Cambridgeshire County Council at the moment will be advising the Government that they are ‘not minded’ to increase council tax by 2% for this purpose. A final decision will be made next month. Just to put it in context, for the average Band D property, a 2% rise on council tax would mean an extra £33 a year. With me now are two men with very different views on this. Ashley Walsh who is the Leader of the Labour group on Cambridgeshire County Council, who is calling for a rise bigger than 2%. Morning Ashley.
ASHLEY WALSH: Morning Dotty.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And also Paul Bullen who is the Leader of the UKIP group who thinks there should be no rise at all. Morning Paul.
PAUL BULLEN: Good morning Dotty.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So Ashley we’ll start with yourself. You’re calling for a 4% rise, an extra £60 on a year for the average householder. Why? Why do we need the money?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well Cambridgeshire County Council will have had all of its national government funding abolished by 2019. That’s £112 million that will have gone. People like UKIP and the Tories go around creating this complete myth of inefficient council officers, unproductive spending. There may be some inefficiencies, but we’re talking about £110 million pounds. Those have gone. We’re cutting services for disabled adults who need learning packages, for lonely elderly women who can’t get their incontinence pads replaced in the middle of the night. These are not inefficiency savings. These are cutting right to the very bone of the services, as the man from the GMB union pointed out earlier.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Of course to increase council tax by 4% the County Council would have to hold a referendum. What about the cost of that?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well there wouldn’t be a referendum. We’re allowed to raise council tax by 2% a year anyway, and Osborne has said that if we raise the extra 2% on top of that we wouldn’t need to do a referendum. So there’d be no cost there at all.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. What do you think of what Ashley is saying Paul?
PAUL BULLEN: Well I agree to a certain extent about the cuts, but at the moment we are providing all the statutory services to the old, the vulnerable and those in need, and we can continue to do so. What I’m saying is that council tax is a very regressive and unfair taxation system. Any rise in council tax affects those on the minimum wage.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Why do you think it’s regressive and outdated?
PAUL BULLEN: Because it’s not means tested in any way shape or form. It is those as I say at the lower end of the pay scale who suffer the most.
DOTTY MCLEOD: It does depend though on the value of the property that you live in.
PAUL BULLEN: It does Dotty, but to put it in perspective, this council currently holds £16 million in reserves. All of those reserves have been built up by more or less all of the last three years of rises in council tax. We put council tax up for the last three years and we haven’t spent it. Reserves are there for a rainy day. Financially, outside this building this morning there’s a torrential downpour. It’s now time to spend in my opinion those reserves without putting additional financial burden on the public of Cambridgeshire, and by doing so we can still provide the services that are needed. We do not need to raise council tax.
DOTTY MCLEOD: What about that then Ashley? We’ve got loads of money in our back pocket. Why don’t we pull it out?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well as the head of our social care services says, the Council, with these cuts we’re planning to implement this year, will face an unprecedented level of risk. The reason we need higher reserves is because the Council does not know the impact, the devastating impact, that the cuts it’s making will have on people. And if a legal case happened, if somebody has to be taken into hospital because the social care services haven’t adequately looked after them, we have to bear the brunt of that, which is why we need higher reserves.
DOTTY MCLEOD: I just want to raise a similar but related issue with you. There was a report in the news yesterday from the Cambridge Commission was it called? It was an organisation which carries out research into social care.
ASHLEY WALSH: Cambridge Commons.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Cambridge Commons. Exactly that. They said that social care in Cambridgeshire is a ‘silent catastrophe’. Now Paul Bullen you said a moment ago that social care in Cambridgeshire at the moment, it’s actually fine. So you disagree with this report?
PAUL BULLEN: I don’t disagree with the report. The facts in the report are right. But there is a very important paragraph in that report that also says what I’ve already said, that council tax is regressive and it’s unfair. And that’s a fact. But also in that report it puts the blame firmly with previous governments, starting with the previous Labour Government, then the Coalition Government and the current Tory. All of them have borrowed and borrowed and borrowed, and they continue to tax the people in this country, the hard-working people in this country. That really has got to stop. We’ve had far too much central government financial incompetence. We’ve now got to say enough’s enough. You can’t keep taxing people. We need to grab hold of things and we need to change things, and indeed we’re doing that in Cambridgeshire County Council. We have a huge asset portfolio that in the past we’ve had to pay to maintain.
DOTTY MCLEOD: But of course if you sell the assets then you don’t have them further down the line.
PAUL BULLEN: If you let me finish Dotty, we’re not now. That was the policy before this administration. This administration in Cambridgeshire County Council has changed that now. We have an investment review group, which I am on. We are now starting to realise those assets. We are going to develop our own property. We’re going to develop income streams for the future. And we are going .. the aspiration is that at some time in the future, certainly my aspiration, is that we don’t have to have any council tax whatsoever. We should be self-sufficient. We have the asset portfolio in my opinion to become self-sufficient a couple of years down the line.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Realistic Ashley?
ASHLEY WALSH: Completely unrealistic. Cambridgeshire is the fastest growing county in the entire country. We have the largest growing rate of elderly and young people who need social care. At the same time we are one of the most underfunded authorities in the entire country. The maths just don’t add up. We need to raise council tax in order to be more efficient. If we are going to be self-sufficient, which the Government is telling us we have no choice but to be, then we need to be increasing our tax base in order that we can start investing it in being more productive and in providing services better and more efficiently.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Suppose though there was a referendum, or suppose council tax did increase in any case, would you not feel sorry for people who are struggling to make ends meet, who would be having to find an extra £60 a year?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well I do. As the Cambridge Commons report says, which was written by a former head of social services and council chief executive himself, council tax is not a perfect measure, because it needs to be revalued. But the poorest do not pay council tax , because it starts at a threshold. And local authorities have a discretionary fund to support those who cannot afford to pay it. Now councils have a complete Hobson’s Choice. Either we tell elderly people who can’t get their incontinence pads replaced at midnight that they can’t get that service, or we raise council tax. And I known which side of that debate I’m on.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for both coming into the studio. We do appreciate it. You heard councillor Ashley Walsh there who is the Leader of the Labour group on Cambridgeshire County Council, and councillor Paul Bullen who is the Leader of the UKIP group. Thank you both for coming in.