South Cambs – Radical Solutions To Protect Services

"But when she got there, the cupboard was bare ... "
“But when she got there, the cupboard was bare … “

09:09 Thursday 19th December 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[A]NDIE HARPER: Local councils in England are facing a 2.9% cut in overall Government funding for 2014/15 it was announced yesterday afternoon. On the Bigger Breakfast we heard that across the board, councils in Cambridgeshire will receive around £25 million less in Government grants next year. Joining me is Cllr Simon Edwards, the Deputy Leader of South Cambs District Council, who last week was critical of the decision to give MPs a pay rise. Simon, Good morning to you.
SIMON EDWARDS: Good morning. Andy.
ANDIE HARPER: So are all the councils in it together? Brandon Lewis yesterday was trying to stress that this was fairer, because there have always been concerns about favouring certain councils. Do you think you’re all in it together at the same price?

SIMON EDWARDS: Well we’re all in it together in that we have to make some amazing cuts again over the coming year. But the figure of 2.9% reduction, I wish it was the case Andy to be honest. When they say 2.9%, that’s across local government as a whole. But there are certain elements of local government that have been protected, schools for example, health, and so on and so forth. So when it actually translates down to a district council like South Cambridgeshire, we’re seeing a reduction of £870,000 in our 2014/15 funding, and that’s 24%, which is a little bit more than 2.9%.
ANDIE HARPER: Cor, you could say. So you’re obviously faced with making these savings. Where do you start? I was watching the Six o’Clock News last night, and there was a report from Mike Newcastle, standing in an empty swimming pool. There were the seats all around it, obviously a wonderful facility, councils can’t afford to run it. I think they should be. Where do you start?
SIMON EDWARDS: It is a terrible, terrible situation. Last year you will remember that we identified £900,000 of savings, which is the equivalent of £12 per band D home. And you can’t carry on doing that year on year. There has to be a point where you say, we can’t make any more efficiency savings. And I think now is the time to be radical. 24% cut is a tremendous amount that we have to find, but it’s not a surprise to us. We were expecting this. And let’s not be under any illusion. The institutional deficit in this country is going to be here for many years to come. It’s great that the economy is picking up, and everybody is feeling good about that. But actually there is still a massive problem in terms of the debt and the deficit in this country. And that’s going to translate into reduced funding. Now what we’ve done in South Cambs is we haven’t stuck our head in the sand and just thrown our hands in the air. We know that this year we’re going to lose 24%. Next year we’ll probably lose the same. And within four or five years we’re modelling that we’re getting no grant from the Government whatsoever. So what we’re doing is we’re thinking radical. And what we’re doing is we’re taking our New Homes bonus, and we’re investing that, to give us alternative sources of income. And that’s where I think our future lies, because we can’t rely on the Government to carry on funding us.
ANDIE HARPER: Can’t you say, enough is enough? You are a Conservative controlled council with Conservative MPs representing the area, and a predominantly Conservative Government. Can’t you and your colleagues go and say, look, there is no way we can sustain this? Because the people who suffer inevitably are those who are at the bottom end, aren’t they?
SIMON EDWARDS: Well we could Andy, and I certainly would do that under normal circumstances. But as I said, these aren’t normal circumstances. We are in it all together in as much as the debt is still there, the deficit is till there. The Ministers can’t conjure up money where there isn’t money, and we understand that. So what we have to do is think really radically, and work out how we can continue to protect our residents and protect our services. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.
ANDIE HARPER: But they can conjure up money for other things, and that’s the message we keep getting from our listeners all the time. They can conjure up millions if not billions of pounds for certain things, but not for providing essential services to people who’ve paid in in this country over the years.
SIMON EDWARDS: It is always a difficult choice, isn’t it? Where do you put your priorities? This Government have chosen, in local government terms they’ve chosen to protect education and health. I should think that’s probably the right thing to do, to be perfectly honest. But that has to take a priority over some of the other nice things we have. I won’t say them now, because I don’t want to start hares running, as it were. But there are lots of things that we could perhaps look at that are less of a priority than things like education and health.
ANDIE HARPER: You mentioned the cuts that you sustained last year. Now there’s the cuts that are upcoming. have you been given any indication by Mr Pickles & Co. that this might be it?
SIMON EDWARDS: We haven’t, but again we’ve modelled our financial strategy over the next five years, based on what the Government’s overall target is for the next four or five years, to reduce the deficit by .. I can’t remember the exact year now. And if they are going to hit that target, the Institute for Fiscal Studies are saying that we’re going to be looking at similar reductions as we have today for the next four years. And that translates to us, in four or five years time, we will have no funding from the Government in terms of formula grant. So we’re going to deal with that. And we will deal with that. And we will find alternative sources of income, so that we can carry on business as usual.
ANDIE HARPER: Simon, it’s been good to talk to you.