Eastbourne should start explore a bid for unitary authority status in response to East Sussex County Council’s financial position, Lib Dems have suggested this week.
The authority has already had to make £129m worth of savings and is facing having to make another £46m worth of cuts over three years from 2019 under the worst-case scenario.
This week Eastbourne Lib Dems claimed the Tory group have failed to take the necessary steps to deal with the funding crisis and contrasted the situation at County Hall with the one at the Lib Dem-run borough council.
In response Conservative county council leader Keith Glazier acknowledged they were having to make difficult decisions but said the Tories did have a plan which they were delivering each year.
Lib Dem David Tutt, Eastbourne borough council leader and opposition leader at County Hall, said: “This utterly deplorable situation has also come about because the Conservative controlling group have failed to take any of the necessary preparatory steps to deal with this funding crisis.
“All local authorities have seen a sharp reduction in government grants over the last few years but unlike in Eastbourne where we’ve been facing the challenge head on for some time now and, as a consequence, built up our income-generation programmes and significantly reduced costs with only minimal cuts. County Conservatives have just buried their heads in the sand until it’s too late.
“They have adopted a slash and burn approach to their finances and services. This has meant savage cuts to services such as closing Firwood House, cuts to our libraries, cuts to the voluntary sector, children’s and adult social services, music services and vital provision to vulnerable people as provided by excellent local organisations such as Home Works. The list of draconian service cuts goes on and on.”
But Mr Glazier said in response: “The Conservative group on East Sussex County Council ensure that the resources of the council are spent wisely. It is easy for the opposition to criticise when they do not carry the responsibility of actually governing.
“The fact is, the Conservative group is making difficult decisions that no one would wish to be making, but in doing so, the budget is balanced, the county’s statutory responsibilities met and best use is being made of every penny of council tax. The group has a plan, and has delivered on that plan every year; last year to within half a percent of budget.
“The Conservatives were elected as a majority party as recently as last May by the voters of East Sussex as the people they trust and support to make the difficult decisions that have to be made over the coming years. This was an increase in the Conservative majority by a third (20 Conservative Councillors elected in 2013 compared to 30 elected in 2017). They take that responsibility very seriously and are getting on with the work in the interests of East Sussex residents and businesses
“The Conservative Group is constantly researching and reviewing how to get the best value and most effective governance for the public’s money. This could include a move to a unitary authority if there was a general consensus that it was the right answer for East Sussex.”
Lib Dems suggested switching to unitary authority status, as an alternative to a two-tier system, should be explored.
Cllr Tutt explained: “If East Sussex County Council can’t run their affairs properly perhaps it’s time for Eastbourne to seriously consider pushing to become a unitary authority, so that the success we’ve achieved in our town - maintaining frontline services whilst generating considerable income growth - can be replicated across the range of services which East Sussex County Council are supposed to deliver for Eastbourne but obviously failing to do so.”
This was echoed by Stephen Lloyd, Lib Dem MP for Eastbourne, who asked if it was time to seriously debate pushing to become a unitary authority and encouraged Herald readers to share their thoughts on the proposal.
He added: “County Hall has totally failed to take the necessary steps which we’ve done in Eastbourne over the last few years so they’re now totally dependent on central Government to bail them, and us, out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves. Bluntly if a Tory county Council can’t get the money needed from a Tory government, what’s the point of them?”