Could Eastbourne become a unitary authority?

Stephen Lloyd MP for Eastbourne
Stephen Lloyd MP for Eastbourne

It was recently revealed that East Sussex County Council are preparing to become the second Conservative-run council, after Northamptonshire County Council, to set out plans to strip back services to the “legal minimum” as they look at a worst-case scenario deficit budget position by 2021/22 of £46.4m.

This is very worrying news and I am bound to ask just how our services locally could be cut even more bare, than the proposed closure of Firwood House and the long list of other cuts ESCC recently announced.

I had a long chat with my colleague , David Tutt, Leader of Eastbourne Council, earlier in the week about the county’s plans and how, in contrast, our borough council had managed to deal with similar cuts in central government funding without having to take the same sort of drastic action as County Hall. David reminded me that in Eastbourne we’ve been facing the challenge proactively for some time now rather than avoiding taking any action until the last minute. And in that period building up income-generation programmes, significantly reducing staffing and management costs and leading the charge locally on setting up joint working arrangements between other councils. All this over the last, at least, seven years! He also reminded me the Lib Dem group on the county council recently presented an alternative budget to County Hall, which would have reduced the need to cut resources by £7m and could have ensured many key services were maintained. To his surprise and disappointment, county rejected the proposals out of hand. This is a dire situation for provision across our town and the whole of East Sussex, and we are seeing the human consequences every day now. East Sussex County Council, by failing to take the necessary, bold steps years ago which have been done in Eastbourne, are now totally dependent on central government grants to bail them out or to savage local services, in exactly the same way as Northamptonshire. My response to the ESCC conservatives are two-fold; firstly, shame on you for your lack of preparedness, and secondly, if a Tory county council can’t get the money needed from a Tory government, what’s the point of you? Their priorities are also all wrong. With 16 county council officers earning more than £100,000 per annum, and a council leader who only recently jacked up his remuneration by 37 per cent, it’s not a good look! Meanwhile the most vulnerable in our communities are suffering; in my opinion it’s time for the whole Cabinet to consider their position.

Equally something for us all to consider now is an idea which David and I have been mulling over for a decade; and that is if we can’t trust East Sussex County Council to run their affairs properly, perhaps it’s time for Eastbourne to seriously debate pushing to become a unitary authority? So the success we’ve achieved in our town - maintaining frontline services and streamlining our staffing rolls whilst generating significant income growth - can be replicated across the range of services ESCC are regulated to deliver for Eastbourne but are failing to do so. I am putting this proposition on the table to the readers of the Herald. What do you think?

Meanwhile you will know how for the last 10 years I’ve been campaigning on behalf of local resident Gillian McKenzie, and other families, on the issue of the horrendous goings-on at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital, and the subsequent Independent Panel which led to the Report of Bishop James Jones. A police investigation is now underway, led by Assistant Chief Constable Nick Downing, head of serious crime at Kent and Essex Police. This is a welcome move because Mrs McKenzie, other relatives, nurses and whistle-blowers have been ignored for a long time and it was crucial that the same thing didn’t happen to the Bishop’s Report. It’s not the first time the case has been referred to the police but, sadly, the previous investigations were deeply flawed. Three police probes by Hampshire Police failed to bring any criminal charges on the past, and yet we now know that at least 450 people died and perhaps as many as 600. All attributed to the ‘inappropriate prescribing of diamorphine.

I’ve been pressing hard in Parliament ever since the report came out the government must implement a criminal inquiry, so I am glad this has now started. The relatives had to wait many years to hear the awful truth of what happened at Gosport Royal Infirmary. I hope they will now get the justice they deserve, and that those who perpetrated this horror have to face up to the consequences of their actions in court.

It was a pleasure to drop into Sussex Downs College to meet and listen to a bunch of our young people who are all taking part in this year’s NCS programme. It stands for National Citizenship Service and takes place across the country every summer, bringing students together from a range of different backgrounds and schools. To learn how to work in partnership, to practice new skills and ultimately to undertake a series of social enterprise initiatives. A laudable concept, and they were an impressive bunch of teenagers.

That’s it folks. Have a great weekend and I hope to see you around town.