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What happens in our county council, in County Hall at Kingston, has a direct impact on us just as much as decisions taken in the borough council as the recent stories about a possible 15% rise in council tax shows.
In what we hope will be regular columns from two Guildford based county councillors, Keith Witham, Conservative, who represents Worplesdon division and Fiona White, a Liberal Democrat councillor for Guildford West, readers can obtain a better insight of the formidable issues our county council faces.
In this article Cllr White reflects on recent budgeting activity at Kingston and its consequences…
By Fiona White
The trouble with Surrey County Council budgets is that councillors never see the detail of cuts until after the budget has been set. We just get broad brush figures, by department. There can be some clues along the way but, like much else in local government, the important information is behind the curtain.
The meeting to set the county council’s budget was one of the strangest I have ever attended. We had a series of adjournments with cabinet members sometimes in the chamber and sometimes not. Until we returned from lunch, many of us had to just speculate about what was going on.
Then there was the infamous adjournment while political groups met to consider the recommendation that council tax should increase by 4.99% instead of the expected 15% but with no details of what that would mean in practical terms.
We now know that the council leader, when briefing his own group, referred to a series of telephone conversations with ministers and political advisers but he did not share that information with the whole council. He did ask all councillors to support his amended council tax recommendation, despite the fact that many of us had no idea about those discussions.
The outcome of all this is that the council has to find a further £30 million of savings in addition to the £93 million savings in the budget papers.
There was much holding of breath in the run-up to the budget speech by Chancellor Phillip Hammond, one of Surrey’s MPs to see if he would ride to Surrey’s rescue. In fact, he did recognise the difficulties with social care budgets and pledged an additional £2 billion of funding nationally over the next few years, with the first £1 billion to be available this year.
Out of that, Surrey will get just over £7.5 million in the next financial year. That still leaves a whacking great black hole in the budget. If you are curious, you might want to know that Hampshire and Kent, our nearest neighbours, are to get just over £17 million and more than £26 million respectively.
We won’t know for certain where the cuts to Surrey’s services will fall. We do know that there are going to be changes to sexual health and family planning advice clinics. There will be just three “hubs” across the county, one of which is in Guildford at Buryfields where there is no parking available.
We hear that there will be cuts to youth support services and there are proposals to cut funding to libraries. The council are already raising the criteria for people needing social care and support which means that fewer people will get the help they need. There are likely to be funding cuts to special education needs, despite the fact that Surrey has recently had a poor Ofsted report in that area.
So what is the answer? Making sure that people who need additional care is a national issue. Trying to deal with it by the sledgehammer of council tax is never going to work fairly. Council tax itself is inherently unfair because it is based on where people live rather than their income and ability to pay. Also, some councils gain more from raising council tax than others do.
Politicians in Westminster should stop using social care as a political football. The only fair way to pay for it is by a national fund which should be distributed according to need across the country.