Tory county council ‘sleepwalking to oblivion’

Stroke Association opposing East Sussex County Council cuts to services outside County Hall, Lewes (photo submitted).
Stroke Association opposing East Sussex County Council cuts to services outside County Hall, Lewes (photo submitted).

Budget cuts of £17million proposed by the Tory-led East Sussex County Council have been approved today (Tuesday February 6).

A council tax rise of 5.99 per cent, the equivalent of another £78 a year for a Band D property including the three per cent adult social care levy, was also agreed for 2018/19.

Amendments by the Labour, Lib Dem, Independent Democrats and Independent groups looking to reserve some of the cuts were all easily defeated.

Areas of savings include reducing the number of Household Waste Recycling Sites (HWRSs) and introducing charges for certain types of waste, cutting back on preventative adult social care services and reviewing the county’s network of libraries.

David Elkin (Con, Eastbourne - Sovereign), lead member for resources, said: “I used the word heartbreaking earlier because once again we find ourselves in the position where we have to propose cuts to services and raise council tax.

“This is simply unavoidable in order to best deliver our key priorities: driving sustainable economic growth, keeping vulnerable people safe, helping people help themselves and making the best use of resources.”

The county council is expected to need to find another £31m of savings over 2019/20 and 2020/21.

Opposition amendments attempted to stop a review of £79,000 council funding to the Stroke Association and reverse £1.2m cuts to intermediary care services at Eastbourne’s Milton Grange and Firwood House.

A petition opposing the closure of both facilities has already been signed by almost 8,000 people.

The Labour amendment also included £38,000 to stop the closure of Ore Library, while the Independent Democrats made a pitch for £72,000 to keep libraries in either Polegate or Willingdon open.

David Tutt (LDem, Eastbourne - St Anthony’s), leader of the Lib Dem group, said: “It appears they [the Tories] are sleepwalking to oblivion.

“They need a masterplan and that’s what the Lib Dems are going to be proposing. It’s easy to laugh when you have no proposals yourself.”

The Lib Dems tried to reinstate, either fully or partially, savings to assessment and care management, supporting people services, support for carers, early help, home to school transport, the potential closure of seven libraries across East Sussex and grass cutting.

This £7.2m ‘shopping list’ would have been funded through a number of actions including saving £3.5m by leaving vacant staffing posts unfilled longer and £1.6m by changing how much money is set aside for debt repayments.

Meanwhile £1m would be used from reserves for a transformation and restructuring plan, which would have seen a reduction in the number of senior and middle managers.

However the council’s chief financial officer said he had not been able to secure sufficient assurance to approve the Lib Dem amendment.

On the vacancy factor proposals he described how there is ‘no slack in the staffing budgets’ and was unable to provide a robustness statement for the amendment without seeing more information including an impact assessment.

Addressing the specific cut to stroke services, Keith Glazier (Con, Rye and Eastern Rother), leader of the county council, said: “We had the opportunity to do something different last year, but I hope you understand how dire making these cuts are now we do not have that luxury of doing things.”

He suggested the review may identify alternative sources of funding, but also accused the opposition parties of ‘drifting from to’.

Phil Scott (Lab, Hastings - Hollington and Wishing Tree) highlighted how local authorities were being asked to do more with less funding, while Godfrey Daniel (Lab, Hastings - Braybrooke and Castle) labelled austerity a ‘complete disaster’.

Trevor Webb (Lab, Hastings - Central St Leonards and Gensing), leader of the Labour group, said that even those on the Tory side appeared to acknowledge that funding settlements for local authorities is ‘broken’ with the Conservative Government responsible.

He described his group’s ‘great respect’ for the Stroke Association, a charity he and others were involved with as in 2015 Jeremy Birch, then leader of Hastings Borough Council, died after suffering a stroke.

Several Lib Dems suggested the Tory budget contained a £2m ‘black hole’ since savings relied on either reviews or consultations still to be completed on the possible closure of libraries and care homes.

Kathryn Field (LDem, Battle and Crowhurst) raised concerns that recommissioning services at Firwood House and Milton Grange could lead to elderly residents being ‘displaced’, while John Ungar (LDem, Eastbourne - Old Town) described being ‘aghast’ at proposals for the two facilities.

He argued the Tories had produced no justification for the review and asked how they could consult on possible closures without knowing what the alternatives are.

Colin Swansborough (LDem, Eastbourne - Hampden Park) suggested residents thought the council was ‘mad to even contemplate’ closures, while Pat Rodahan (LDem, Eastbourne - Upperton) argued a decision to shut the facilities would cost them more to reprovide services elsewhere.

But Cllr Elkin said they were simply agreeing to reviews with final decisions to come later.

He explained: “We are carrying out a review and if at the end of the review budgets need to be changed we will do so, we will change them.

“But if we need to change them whatever we need to change them to will be equally painful. There are no silver bullets.”

Several Tories were critical of both the Lib Dem amendment and the campaign to save Milton Grange and Firwood House.

Carl Maynard (Con, Brede Valley and Marsham), lead member for adult social care and health, called the Lib Dems ‘past masters at misinformation and scaremongering’.

He added: “It’s just nonsense. It’s not properly costed and it’s more vague than something you would write on the back of a cigarette packet in a restaurant.”

He went on to suggest that after a review of services at Milton Grange and Firwood House the county council might be able to provide support at less cost at the same level, with a wider geographical area across the whole of East Sussex benefitting.

Meanwhile Richard Stogdon (Con, Crowborough North and Jarvis Brook) criticised the Lib Dem proposal to reduce the waste budget by another £300,000.

He described how one of the council’s scrutiny committees was already wrestling with the difficult problem of how the role of waste collection sites might change.

Seven libraries at Langney, Mayfield, Ore, Pevensey Bay, Polegate, Ringmer and Willingdon, are all under threat of closure, with the results of last year’s consultation on the future of the service due in the spring.

Laurie Loe (Con, Hastings - Baird and Ore) said he was working proactively and productively with officers to explore alternatives for Ore Library involving third parties ‘unlike the Labour members of the borough council standing about and complaining and not doing anything productive about sorting it out’.

Meanwhile Tom Liddiard (Con, Pevensey and Stone Cross), whose division covers Pevensey Bay’s library, suggested the Lib Dems were ‘peddling nonsense’ while he and other Tories were working to keep facilities open if it came to the ‘worst case scenario’.

He added: “We are leading an authority facing these challenges and they really are challenging.

“None of us feel comfortable with some of what has been discussed but we are leading the authority.

“It seems to me they are putting politics before people and that to me is utterly deplorable.”

But Stephen Shing (Ind Dem, Willingdon and South Downs), leader of the Independent Democrats, said it was ‘unfair’ libraries in both Polegate and Willingdon could be shut, especially given new housing development planned in the area.

Simon Elford (Con, Bexhill South) said they were facing ‘difficult decisions’ but suggested the libraries consultation and a review of Milton Grange and Firwood House did not necessarily mean closure and could lead to running the services in a different way ‘more efficiently’.

Ruth O’Keeffe (Ind, Lewes), leader of the Independent group, put forward a further amendment taking out the part of the Lib Dem proposals around the vacancy factor in the ‘interests of peace and harmony’.

She felt they needed to fight the proposed ‘catalogue of cuts’ adding: “If you take away the support you will end up with a whole swathe of other needs popping up instead.”

At the end of the debate, Cllr Elkin said there were no ‘black holes’ in the budget as the council’s rolling budgeting process included contingencies through general reserves.

He added: “These reviews will be done properly and transparently.”

Cllr O’Keeffe’s amendment was defeated by 15 votes to 31.

The Independent Democrat amendment was lost by 13 votes to 32.

The Labour amendment was also lost by 17 votes to 32.

The Lib Dem amendment lost by 12 votes to 36.

The Tory budget for 2018/19 was then passed by 31 votes to 18.

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After the meeting, Tara Galloway, head of stroke support for the Stroke Association, said: “This vital funding pays for the Stroke Association’s communication support service, stroke recovery service, six month review service and education and exercise programme. Without all this support, stroke survivors will be left to feel abandoned.

“Stroke is a leading cause of disability, and our services have helped thousands of people in the local area cope with the massive and sudden impact the condition can have. The support we provide helps people live independently in their own homes, return to work, and rebuild their lives.”

Meanwhile Cllr Elkin said: “It is a bit rich for the Lib Dems to suggest the council is heading into so-called oblivion when their budget amendments could not be supported by the statutory chief finance officer because they were not robust, nor gave evidence of deliverability. Their proposals would have hit frontline staff, and negatively impacted on services.

“The only party that would lead the council into oblivion is the Lib Dems who, the last time they were in power put council tax up by an eye watering 15 per cent.”