Sunday, 24th February 2019

After the Budget process, how do those of us in the Local Government Front Line work constructively and sustain our residents’ trust? And why I won’t write about Brexit.

So much more in sorrow…..

While it appears that some fault-lines in national politics may be shifting (in all honesty it is far too soon to tell what will change in the medium/long term), on a day to day basis things have to go on and people are paying a lot more Council Tax for, it may be reasonably said, fewer or poorer services. This is not universally true, but what cannot be gainsaid is that the cost through the regressive, outdated Council Tax system, based on property values, not disposable income, and therefore completely unrelated to ability to pay, is much higher, with no guarantee that the value residents receive is also higher or that the quality improves.

So it seems as though, in the process of councils fighting to make a balanced, and therefore legal, budget, the tax payer has been the victim of ” presumed consent”, with no choice but to accept rises which they legally have to pay. The only promise of something better comes through the increase in the Police Precept, which is based on a promise to recruit more officers on the ground; for the rest, it is a struggle to keep more of the same (at District level,) or deep cuts, at County level, which for us all of course is the much larger sum.

In opposing the budget proposed at County Hall, I said the following (the full speech, for anyone interested, is like every other speech available on a webcast):

“There is a failure to update our treasury management policies so as to generate the best level of income from investment funds; as a result, there are cuts in services which might otherwise be unnecessary. We need to be up with the best at this and aiming for at least 6%; we are far from there.

There is a failure to address our property portfolio in what is looking like a failed Joint Venture so that residents see valuable property empty, boarded up and wasting valuable resource. This is bad for the council’s image with residents, misses key opportunities to support funding for services and leaves an outward and visible sign of inaction and neglect.

The budget is balanced by identifying savings in adult social care and children’s services, the vast majority of which are invisible to members, are identified as risky or very risky in terms of deliverability and of which the impact on residents we cannot know. We cannot sign off the unknown.

While we recognise the necessity, we cannot know how residents’ entitlements will be affected. We welcome the fact that there is now a drive to improve our children’s services, but we cannot know how this drive is balanced with very deep cuts. We are asked to trust; we are asked to take a leap in the dark.

If we voted for this budget, we would be guessing at the impact on residents and so cannot make an informed judgement. While it is hard to know how the impacts could have been made known to us, the cuts required are deeper and more wide ranging as a result of the council’s failure to address the deep rooted problems which have been identified over the last five years at least; the council’s complacency, its wishful thinking, its banking on a chimerical bail-out, and failure to address the treasury management and property portfolio comes back to haunt us and make life so much harder.”

I know that what I said is true, and distressingly so, for so many families who find that the criteria for special needs entitlements have changed and left them in limbo. In my role as Group Leader and Vice Chair of the Children’s Select Committee, I receive concerns from families across Surrey who find that their children’s entitlements which they expected to be continued now find that there are barriers to their packages of care continuing. It is a sound policy to commission more SEN places in Surrey, rather than send children to placements out of County, but it is wrong to withhold appropriate placements from children unless the necessary services have been commissioned in Surrey.

As I feared, the evidence of my inbox is that precisely that is happening.

The same is true of the Children’s Centres. I could not support a budget which cut so many, especially in Tandridge, where Surrey would have only one remain; but I could support a shift in focus which would, over time, move the service towards supporting the most vulnerable. It would be possible to do that while keeping the centres open, but the money caused the closure, not the modernisation.

The same is true of our community recycling centres. We all know that many are in need of modernisation- our Chaldon Road and Bond Road centres need to look more like the Earlswood or Witley centres- but they should be kept open until a new site, designed on modern lines, can be opened. It’s the money which causes the cuts. I stress this point because those in favour of the closures excuse the cuts as a modernisation process rather than what they are; it is dishonesty to claim otherwise. In my Division the former Dormers Care Home remains empty, boarded up and used only for training police dogs. Why has this site not been reopened for use? This is nothing but ineptitude.

The ineptitude and dishonesty are crippling and painful to watch, and in the case of families looking for special needs placements for their families, hoping their child will get the mental health support they desperately need; in the case of new mothers suffering from post-natal depression with no-one at a children’s centre to turn to for support from those who have “been there”, they will be paying more for services which are simply not there.

Are the politicians responsible for this inept and dishonest?

While it is viscerally tempting to imagine that is true, and while it is correct for a number, it is not true of most. The dishonesty and ineptitude are in part, at least, a product of an oppositional political system which inhibits some of the basics of civilised discourse- the assumption that the person being addressed has a brain and a conscience, the capacity to make an apology when a mistake has been made or a lie told, the inability to admit the arguments of the other side just because “they are the other side.”

The most egregious example of this latter flaw is an argument I once had with Nick Clegg. I met him at a conference of Lib Dem Group leaders in London way back in, I think, 2014. He was in the entrance hall, having arrived from another meeting but needing a quick smoke before he joined the conference. A small group of us were a bit upset with him, to say the least. The previous evening in parliament, he and the other Lib Dem MPs, then of course in what was called a “coalition”, had voted with the Conservatives in favour of the bedroom tax. We challenged him on this- it seemed entirely out of keeping with the spirit, constitution and policies of our party.

His was reply was as outrageous as his behaviour:

”We voted against the Labour proposal to abolish it because it was a Labour motion.”

I never respected the man; now I actively despised him. He got his comeuppance, of course, but then so did a lot of decent politicians who had been beguiled by the system’s reliance on such primitive and tribal behaviour.

I am pleased that the new leader of the County Council appears to be a charming, intelligent and sensible man (so far) and that, as with my relationship with the leader of TDC I can assume both mutual respect and a constructive relationship. But the atavistic tribalism of party politics will always be there- even if the leaders aren’t stoking it, some of the back benchers will, so I have to try to steer a path which is principled, open and honest, but with the constant fear that suddenly the tide will turn and they will turn. I have to be open and collegiate, but with a steel plate at my back for when the stabs come. I still do it because I think it needs to be done. And if I were not doing what I do I would want someone to be doing it on my behalf. So I will continue as long as the residents who elect me still want me.

Which leads me to the last point in the title of this piece- why I won’t write about Brexit.

The first reason is that I wasn’t elected to have a view on Brexit- I was elected to champion my residents’ cause at District and County Council (and Parish for that matter, but we don’t do party politics there.)

The second reason is that I believe the Brexit process has left all those involved looking like pygmies, with no-one looking like a leader, no-one demonstrating a long view in the public interest and no-one who will be judged well by history.

The third reason is that I believe that Brexit has polluted our public discourse, turned grey areas into preposterous black and white, made subtlety and nuance impossible, rendered the complex into the crazily simplistic and allowed too many stupid people a platform for their intolerance.

So I don’t want to join in.