Cutting and hoarding – the miser approach? This year Suffolk County Council demonstrated its usual Gollum attitude to public money – inflicting impossible damage to vital services by slashing comparatively small sums while sitting on a hoard that it doesn’t want to disgorge.
“Its mine it is, and I wants it.”
At SCC’s budget setting meeting of 11 February it was cuts all the way. To community transport funding, to Park and Ride funding, to the Fire services, to Library stock, to County Councillors’ locality budgets… the list goes on and on
“There is no such thing as a free lunch“, announced the Cabinet Member for Finance, shortly after devouring one. And then started announcing ‘the realities’ of austerity – and ignoring the equal reality of the vast sums this administration keep hiding under their mattress, though they were given it in trust to spend on our behalf.
The cuts (there is no point calling them efficiency savings) amount to £34.4m – leading to a budget requirement of £445,659,553. With all these cuts the budget will still increase council tax by 2% – though in a figleaf to the administration’s electoral promise to freeze council tax for the entire electoral period this is worded as “”The budget is based on a freeze… but includes a 2% precept to fund Adult Social Care…”. What is it that George Orwell said about political language? That it was designed to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”?
Unsurprisingly on the day of the budget councillors were told the Conservative administration had ‘found’ more money at the last moment – a Transitional Grant of £1.9m and an extra £1.6 million from the Rural Services Delivery Grant. This money goes specifically to Suffolk on its ‘super-sparsity indicator'( because of “additional rural costs… including the small size of rural councils, scattered and remote populations, lack of private sector providers, and poor broadband and mobile coverage”) Predictably, the Tory administration decided to bank this little windfall (under their rule our county’s piggybank of reserves have increased by £100m to c£170m in 5 years) instead of ameliorating a single cut.
Face it, Suffolk residents – you have the administration you voted in.
You have also the budget that 35 Conservative councillors and the ex-Conservative Councillor for Hadleigh , North Carolina resident Brian Riley voted for. ( Cllr Riley sent his apologies for important statutory councillor training on Child Exploitation earlier in the week. He had no difficulty in flying in from America to vote to impose these cuts on his constituents at the behest of his previous party on Thursday. Hadleigh residents who voted for Riley ‘to give Clegg a bloody nose‘ – how is that one working out for you?).
The total cohort of Suffolk County councillors amounts to 75.
The Lib Dems supported a Labour amendment that tried to ameliorate – indeed turn back – the cuts. They were joined in cross-party unity with the Greens, the Independents and even UKIP. It was a tight vote but the administration squeezed through. The Labour amendment was lost 32-36. The Conservatives won their budget 36-27.
My own speech referred to the transport cuts :
The cuts to Community Transport , Park and Ride and Passenger Transport budgets amount to £750,000. That’s a £1 for every man woman and child in Suffolk. Not a large sum, you might say? Certainly small enough for Suffolk to lose without comment from the administration on the failed Suffolk Circle scheme, which closed so quietly in 2014. Remember that, Cllr Noble?
However these cuts are likely to be catastrophic to the services affected, to the roll-out of the new look Community Transport , now tasked with doing so much more for so many more with so much less; to those who can’t look up timetables on smartphones and laptops as the loss of printed timetables requires because they simply don’t have the smartphones and laptops (and many older bus users don’t have!) and most of all -because possibly fatal – for the park & ride service.
Today I travelled on the park and ride route – 45 mins to Ipswich stuck in a jam of single occupancy cars on the Kesgrave road. There’s no denying this service is desperately needed. Its arguably not well enough promoted. Arguably the charging policy may need review. But its need is unarguable. Indeed, instead of cutting this funding, I’d argue we need to refund and bring back the Bury Road Park and Ride the Tories cut so disastrously a year or two ago. Park and Ride loss will mean a huge loss of amenity for out-of- Ipswich residents: city centre access, railway access, hospital access, Suffolk 1 access.
I’d also argue that all cuts to the public transport budget particularly when over £2m Rural Services Delivery Grant money was specifically allocated to Suffolk on its super sparsity indicator – that is specifically to help us with issues such as our scattered and remote population – are an exercise of power without responsibility: an inability of the administration to recognise the unintended consequences of these cuts.
Yes, this is a time of austerity and we must all get real. SO lets talk the reality of reality. And at a time of austerity we have a duty to support those people who are suffering most from the impact of austerity. Efficient reliable public transport underpins education, employment, training, access to health and social care. Of course I support Labour’s amendment!