A report on the future of county council services in East Sussex has prompted heated debate at County Hall this week.
At a meeting on Tuesday (July 17), East Sussex County Council’s cabinet agreed to a number of recommendations set out in a ‘state of the county’ report, which includes proposals that could see future cuts to public services.
The proposals in the report are based on the expectation that the population of the county will grow while central government funding falls, resulting in the council reducing its ‘Core Offer’ of services.
Keith Glazier, leader of the Conservative-controlled council said: “In introducing the report I don’t need to remind you of the hard work and tough decisions we have already taken and it is important that we remember, when we consider this, that by March 2019 we will have made some £129m of savings since 2010.
“This report makes it clear that we are nearing the end of what we can achieve in this way. The report sets out the particular issues we face in East Sussex; the growth in population in particular, coupled with the reduction in central government funding.
“This means we need to make more savings over the next three years and could mean up to £46m of additional cuts.
“The scale of what we have done to date and the changes ahead mean we have to take a new approach.”
According to council reports, the reduced ‘core offer’ will “fulfil statutory duties, offer support to those most in need, preserve some level of early help and prevention and assist with the economic development of the county”.
Officers say the council is likely to hit this reduced level of service by 2020/21, but cannot out rule out future reductions beyond this point.
The report sparked concerns among many in the council chamber, with several members raising fears about future cuts to services.
David Tutt, leader of the council’s Liberal Democrat Group, said: “If you wanted précis version of this from me, it would be that we are in a real mess and the only solution we’ve got to it is to cut our services and put the begging bowl out to government.
“For me, it can be summed up like that and don’t take any pleasure in saying it. You talk about it being a report for the future in the next three years. I would seriously question if we have got three years.
“We have just seen a raft of cuts that were voted on by your group in the February budget, the detail of which has been rolling out in recent months and weeks.”
Cllr Tutt also challenged the Conservative group to come up with an ‘attention-grabbing strategy’ such as a mass resignation, referring to Surrey County Council’s threat to hold a local referendum on raising council tax rates by 15 per cent.
In response Cllr Glazier said: “First and foremost, we have no intention of resigning. This county needs stable government and we are stable government.
“The second thing is we are not a shambles or in a mess. We have a plan and we have delivered it.
“We delivered, within half of one per cent, our budget last year. We are making difficult decisions, that none of us would wish to be doing, but we are providing a balanced budget and meeting our statutory responsibilities.”
Later in the debate Cllr Glazier faced criticism from Colin Swansborough, Liberal Democrat councillor for Eastbourne – Hampden Park.
Cllr Swansborough said: “Looking at the core offer now, we are looking at the bottom of the well. We are going to finish up struggling to meet our statutory obligations.
“Watching you go to lobby the government is a bit like that scene in Oliver Twist, where Oliver goes up to the beadle and asks ‘please may I have some more.’
“You are about as effective as Oliver because you don’t come back with anything. It’s because you don’t fight for the people of East Sussex.”
Cllr Swansborough’s comments provoked shouts of anger from Conservative councillors and were criticised by Cllr Glazier as the meeting’s chairman.
Carl Maynard, the council’s lead member for adult social care and health, said: “We have seen a lot of politically expedient pontification from the other side of the chamber today but I think it is really important to just set this into a sensible context.
“This is a very, very clear report and a very honest report that sets out the core offer that has been mentioned.
“We need to be honest with the public. Alarmist political nonsense is not something that helps this debate or indeed properly engages with the residents of East Sussex.”
Earlier in the debate Godfrey Daniel, Labour councillor for Braybrooke and Castle ward in Hastings, said the council needed to make it clear to residents that cuts to council services ‘resulted from central government policy’.
He said: “I accept that this council is not a shambles, but I have to say the government is. Day-by-day we see the government falling apart and I can only hope there is a general election soon.
“Otherwise there is no hope for local services, there is no hope for local councils and there is no hope for local people.”
Cllr Daniel also requested the council produce a document showing what current services would not be included in the council’s new core offer, in an effort to show residents what services are under threat.