07:07 Friday 4th October 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[P]AUL STAINTON: Let’s start though with cuts to council budgets, which will impact on all of us, and in particular on front line services going forward. That’s the warning anyway from a union spokesman for Cambridgeshire. Officials from the GMB Union meet today to decide their response to further budget cuts local authorities are going to have to make over the next few years, as their central government grants are reduced yet again. Here’s Richard O’Leary, the GMB’s Regional Officer for Public Services in Cambridgeshire. Earlier he said there are no more efficiencies savings that can be made .
RICHARD O’LEARY: Since 2010 the cuts in local government have been absolutely savage. By 2015 there’ll be over 500 jobs lost at the current figures in Cambridgeshire. And a billion pound budget will virtually have been cut in half. There literally is no more cuts to make, and the biggest effect in these cuts as well as on local residents are on the staff.
PAUL STAINTON: As I mentioned, Cambridgeshire County Council has to save £159 million over the next five years. They’ve already made 500 people redundant in the last three and a half years, and the Leader of the Council Martin Curtis has warned that hundreds more jobs might have to go. And he says it’s not really his or the authority’s fault.
MARTIN CURTIS: We have done everything Government asked of us. We’re the fastest growing county in the country. As successive governments have said that they want councils to invest in growth, we’ve done that, and what we feel is we’re being punished. The level of cuts we’ve got to make in the next couple of years, we’re one of the worst affected county councils. And what we’re saying is actually Government need to revisit this. They actually need to revisit the whole scope of funding cuts to councils in general, and think about whether they can find those savings elsewhere.
PAUL STAINTON: So last week it was firefighters. earlier this week it was teachers. Could it be council staff who are the next group of public sector workers to go on strike? Well Richard O’Leary from the GMB didn’t rule it out.
RICHARD O’LEARY: It’s difficult to say. We hope not. Strikes are always a last resort. I was talking to somebody yesterday and made the point that I think there’s only actually been four days of industrial action in public services in the last 25 years. That’s the purpose of our meeting in London today, to gauge the views of our local government reps, to see what can be done to work with local authorities. But also obviously our primary role is to protect members’ terms and conditions, and services to the public.
PAUL STAINTON: Joining me now is Eleanor McGrath from the Taxpayers Alliance. They think councils could still make savings. Eleanor, where?
ELEANOR MCGRATH: Well if you look at other councils, actually if we go back to some of the things they were saying there about staffing and whatnot, we’ve actually done a Town Hall Rich List every year, looking at councils who have staff earning over £100,000. If you look at Peterborough Council, they actually (have) eleven members of staff earned over £100,000 in 2011/12. That’s over a million pounds. That’s a saving right there.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it? Are they not essential? Are they not essential staff?
ELEANOR MCGRATH: You need to cut back these salaries. These are massive salaries. In comparison to chief execs in the private sector this doesn’t happen, these sorts of salaries. They need to get their act together when it comes to this. Other councils across the country have done fantastic jobs when it comes to cutting back on spending at this time, and looking at various ways they can bring down that bill, and not increase council tax.
PAUL STAINTON: But those salaries are not out of kilter with other councils are they? Won’t we just end up getting less good people in those roles if we reduce those salaries?
ELEANOR MCGRATH: No, absolutely not. This is a great job, a fantastic job, and they do have a lot of responsibility. Having said that, other councils across the country have cut back on these sorts of salaries, these huge salaries, and they haven’t affected people’s council tax and whatnot. So there are many ways. If you look at other councils sharing services, this kind of thing, making sure that they get the best deal possible when they go for contracts and whatnot. this is what they have to do, look at every single way they can do this without affecting people’s council tax.
PAUL STAINTON: You seem to be with the Government here then.
ELEANOR MCGRATH: Absolutely.
PAUL STAINTON: You think that they’re on the right track. The Department for Communities and Local Government, fifty tips they’ve given out to council cutting. Freeze councillor allowances, end councillor pensions, cut the chief executive post altogether, end spending on consultants and agency staff, is that all feasible really?
ELEANOR MCGRATH: Yes. Absolutely. We’ve seen so many councils share a chief executive, cut back on all these consultant and whatnot, look at what contracts they’re actually getting at the moment, and don’t go in after the first deal, keep going and try to get that best value for money. The idea that .. council needs to run like .. this is taxpayers’ money at the end of the day. Taxpayers want to know they’re getting value for money. So it’s all well and good for them to say, oh, this government aren’t giving us enough money, but they need to use that money adequately, what they have, and use taxpayers’ money, and make sure they are getting best value for money. We’ve seen councils do this across the country, and not cut any frontline services. In fact, open new libraries and this sort of thing. So it is possible, and for Cambridgeshire to turn around and say this is just frankly outrageous to be honest.
PAUL STAINTON: Peterborough City Council want to have more councillors.
ELEANOR MCGRATH: That’s .. look at .. at the moment they’ve got eleven members of the Council staff earning over £100,000, and yet they’re claiming then that it’s the Government’s fault. And yet they want more councillors. It’s shocking, and I think an awful lot of listeners out there will be perplexed by the fact that they’re going on in this tirade that it’s the Government’s fault, when they’re actually (they) themselves are not getting their budgets on track and providing value for money.
PAUL STAINTON: One of our listeners this morning has described this as a race to the bottom. Is this what we’re doing here?
ELEANOR MCGRATH: A race to the bottom? In what sense?
PAUL STAINTON: Who can cut the most the quickest, and offer nothing.
ELEANOR MCGRATH: It’s not cutting the most. It’s making sure that they’re getting value for money. At the end of the day the budget, the money they have, is local residents’ money. And they need to show that they are not spending it on unwise things. We’ve seen so many cases of wasteful spending, bad contracts, this kind of thing. And these are the things they need to look at. Even things like collecting council tax. A lot of the time .. things like council tax arrears, and that sort of thing. That’s why they need to be more vigilant when it comes to this sort of actions.
PAUL STAINTON: You talk about cutting posts. You talk about merging services, outsourcing services. A lot of that’s gone on already obviously, but if we take it to the extremes that you’re talking about, what’s the point in having all these separate councils across Cambridgeshire? Maybe we should just go back to having one big unitary authority for Cambridgeshire?
ELEANOR MCGRATH: What we’re saying is we’re going along with the fact that there are as I said so many ways. We’ve seen so many councils, I think Windsor and Maidenhead, they’ve just done such good work when it comes to looking at different initiatives in the area, working with each other, and at the same time have never increased their council tax, have taken the council tax freeze on board. So for councils to act like nothing’s possible, it’s not on. And I don’t think it’s fair to the taxpayer at the end of the day who’s footing the bill.
PAUL STAINTON: Interesting point of view from Eleanor McGrath from the Taxpayers’ Alliance.