Outlook remains bleak for council services

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Almost every week between now and the end of February our local media here in Brighton and Hove will feature stories like this one, where campaigners claim that cuts to the city council’s Animal Welfare service will lead to dogs being put down, and cruelty going unpunished. Daily I get emailed petitions about saving the council’s Park Ranger service from cuts, whilst protests about education and disability services continue.

The themes are the same. Cuts will be counterproductive, will lead to more costs in the long run, and suffering in the short run. We know you are in a difficult situation, residents say, but find another way. You can’t cut this. Cut somewhere else, please.

Opponents point to “extra funding” announced in the Local Government Settlement last week, with more money for social care and homelessness. They say that full business rate retention will mean councils have the same funding overall in 2020 as they do now. Critics point to “profits” from parking, and sums spent on travellers.

Yet the 2% council tax increase for social care will come from the bank accounts of residents, not the Government. The £2m it will raise will close but not eliminate the budget gap we still have for next year, nor prevent any proposed cuts. The homelessness funding will have to be spent by the end of this financial year – just three months away. The business rates we will get – after businesses have appealed and avoided paying whatever they legitimately can – will only come to the council in 2020. All of the money we get from parking has to be spent on funding bus passes for older people, and spending on evicting and cleaning up after unauthorised traveller encampments is relatively small change, but unavoidable.

That’s after we have cut almost £70 million from what we spend on services as our grant from Government – which pays for over a third of what the council does – is cut entirely. Meanwhile the costs of social care – looking after vulnerable children, people with disabilities and special needs, older people – continue to rise well above the rate of inflation. Funding per pupil is being cut, and the funding for running a local education authority is being ended altogether. Meanwhile more statutory responsibilities are given to councils with funding only for the first year.

By 2020 Brighton and Hove City Council will have around £150 million less to run services each year than it did in 2010. That’s around 40%. In effect that will mean council tax – increased by 4% each year – will only pay for social care and some basic refuse and recycling services. Other services, like animal welfare and park rangers, will have to go. With councils charging residents more, but delivering less, the Government expect the public to place the blame squarely on the doorstep of local town halls, not on those in Downing Street.

I totally sympathise with all those lobbying me and the council on cuts to each and every service. I’m a resident too, and not immune to the effects or blind to the consequences of the decisions we face.

We don’t choose these services to protect other areas or out of an ignorance as to their worth, or the consequences if they end. There is no untouched bureaucracy, unchecked waste or gold-plated privilege we are opting to preserve, as the Tories claim. In the summer we were faced with a projected overspend of some £9m, which through strict and painful spending controls we have all but eliminated. We took over in May from a Green Administration that had spent four years focused on internal battles and One Planet Living and urban realm projects whilst, adopting a head-in-the-sand approach to the impending financial crisis.

The option of setting an illegal “needs-based” budget, with a likely council tax increase of 25 to 30%, is not one I would consider, not least for the likely catastrophic  impact on those struggling with household budgets already. The Labour leadership have made their views on that clear.

So the outlook is at best extremely challenging, at worst almost impossibly bleak, yet I and my colleagues are determined to provide some hope for the residents of Brighton and Hove, and our region. In my next blog post I will set out our plans and ambitions for 2016 and how we intend to lay the foundations for the future of our city.

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