‘Conservative crocodile tears budget’ approved by county council

LEWES. County Hall SUS-150522-151022001
LEWES. County Hall SUS-150522-151022001

Spending plans labelled a ‘Conservative crocodile tears budget’ by Labour have been approved by county councillors today (Tuesday February 9).

Debate of East Sussex County Council’s spending plans for 2016/17 was slightly delayed due to late information provided by the Government, something that was labelled a ‘complete farce’ and ‘outrageous’ by several councillors.

The settlement contained a two-year transitional grant totalling around £5.4m, but the Tory administration’s budget put the majority of this into reserves to help reduce projected deficits over the next few years.

Amendments from the Labour and Lib Dem groups reducing some of the planned cuts to adult social care services and grants to voluntary sector organisations were both defeated.

David Elkin (Con, Eastbourne - Sovereign), deputy leader and lead member for resources, said: “Whilst it’s very very welcome this is one-off money. It only amounts to 0.7 per cent of our annual budget.”

He described ‘shelving hard decisions as the least ethical course of action’, but added: “This budget protects the most vulnerable which offers as much certainty as we can to local people who need our services the most.”

Cllr Elkin continued: “The report provides a cohesive approach and a strategy for planning £360m that will be spent in the next year.”

The budget included a 3.99 per cent increase in ESCC’s portion of council tax, equating to an extra £47.84 a year for a Band D property from April, with two per cent of that rise to purely fund adult social care.

But it sets out around £20m of cuts in 2016/17, with more proposed in 2017/18 and 2018/19 due to a steep reduction in funding from central Government.

Keith Glazier (Con, Rye and Eastern Rother), leader of the council, added: “If you do not set a sustainable budget you will regret it for years to come.”

Although the Lib Dems supported the use of the transitional grant proposed by the Tories, the Labour amendment used the 2016/17 money to help reverse some of the planned cuts.

Both amendments reversed cuts to services in both extra care and sheltered housing schemes, funding for organisations such as Autism Sussex, and money for the adoption and fostering service.

Michael Wincott (Lab, Hastings - Baird and Ore) described it as a ‘Conservative crocodile tears budget’ and said that ‘nobody should fall for it’. He added: “Conservatives have facilitated, supported and encouraged these cuts all along.”

But Peter Pragnall (Con, Hastings - Ashdown and Conquest) countered this, saying that none of the councillors had come into local government to ‘take services away from our residents’.

Trevor Webb (Lab, Hastings - Central St. Leonards and Gensing), leader of the Labour group, added: “Our budget we think is a good reflection of what people want from Lewes to Hastings to Crowborough.”

Unveiling the Lib Dem amendments, Mike Blanch (LDem, Eastbourne - Hampden Park) felt that a number of the cuts would ‘come back to bite us’ and lead to vulnerable people losing their independence, instead needing expensive care packages.

He added: “Quite apart from the personal trauma these cuts will cause they are not good policy.”

David Tutt (LDem, Eastbourne - St Anthony’s), leader of the Lib Dem group, said they also agreed with the Tories about the need for a sustainable budget, but argued this could be achieved by looking at back-office spending first to protect front-line services for the vulnerable.

Carolyn Lambert (LDem, Seaford Blatchington) called the Tory Government cuts a ‘sustained and unrelenting attack on the most vulnerable members of our society, and added: “We can’t expect these third sector organisations to plug the gap and pick up the pieces where this Government has failed.”

But John Barnes (Con, Rother North West) explained that the transitional funding was a ‘sticking plaster’ and would not go into their permanent funding base, and all the Labour amendment would do was postpone the proposed cuts.

Meanwhile Richard Stogdon (Con, Crowborough) spoke against cuts in the Lib Dem proposals to the rangers and Trading Standards department.

Philip Howson (UKIP, Peacehaven and Telscombe Towns), leader of the UKIP group, felt the Lib Dem proposals had ‘every appearance of being cobbled together’, and asked the Labour group to ‘get real’. He added: “Nobody wants these cuts, but finances dictate we must cut something.”

He suggested the amount of reserves held by the county council might be too high, and singled out cuts to Refuge, which offers temporary accommodation for women who are victims of domestic violence and abuse as ‘heartless and disgraceful’.

Ruth O’Keeffe (Ind, Lewes), leader of the Independent Group, threw her support behind Labour’s amendment, while Stephen Shing (IDG, Polegate, Willingdon and East Dean), leader of the Independent Democrats Group, put forward a third amendment reversing an £80,000 funding cut to the Stroke Association.

Cllr Shing’s amendment was carried.

After the meeting Sandra Field, the Stroke Association’s regional head of operations in the South East Coast, said: “We are pleased that East Sussex County Council has decided to continue supporting stroke survivors.

“Stroke remains one of the greatest health challenges of our time, and is the leading cause of complex adult disability. “Nobody plans for a stroke, though it’s good to see the Council planning to provide vital support for local stroke survivors and their loved ones whenever they need it.

“The Stroke Association will make sure that stroke survivors can get the support they need to rebuild their life after stroke.

“For more information or support visit www.stroke.org.uk or call 01323 886 920.”

Godfrey Daniel (Lab, Hastings - Braybrooke and Castle) called the late settlement ‘at this stage a complete farce’, and also criticised the UKIP group for not putting forward a formal amendment. Alan Shuttleworth (LDem, Eastbourne - Langney) felt that providing the information at the 11th hour was ‘outrageous’.

The Lib Dem amendment was defeated by 26 votes to 16, while the Labour amendment lost by 18 to 23.

Last month, all political group leaders on the council wrote to David Cameron to voice their ‘significant concerns’ over funding cuts, which they said would ‘significantly reduce the quality of life’ for many people in the county.

After the meeting Cllr Glazier said: “Having already had to save £78 million since 2010, we have cut our spending back to the bone, leaving us with very little room left to manoeuvre.

“The council tax increase gives us a little bit of leeway to preserve funding for some adult social care services which we would otherwise have had to stop – but the cuts to our funding mean we can’t avoid making savings which will affect the community.

“It’s with a heavy heart that we ask residents to part with their hard-earned money, but asking people to pay a bit more will help protect some services which make a real difference to vulnerable people.

“We believe the budget which members have approved does as much as possible for people in East Sussex in the toughest financial climate we’ve ever seen.”

The budget includes £164 million spending on adult social care, including residential and home care for the elderly and support for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues.

It also includes £65 million for children’s services – including supporting looked-after children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities – and £61 million on communities, economy and transport – including roads and libraries.

The budget for 2016/17 also includes £129 million of capital spending for one-off projects, including £18 million on highways structural maintenance.

The proposals will mean that the council, which has already reduced the number of senior managers by a quarter since 2010, is expected to lose the equivalent of 100 to 150 full-time posts in the next financial year.

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