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Wednesday, 31st October 2018

Austerity is not yet over!

Austerity is NOT yet over!

The County Council has issued five consultations- on the future of Children’s Centres, the future of libraries, CRC closures (recycling centres) and cutting discretionary travel (bus passes). These can be found at www.Surreycc.gov.uk/consultations and are open till 4th January.

Cabinet yesterday agreed to top-slice the grant to schools to boost SEND funding, as well as taking non academy schools’ reserves where they exceed 20% of their grant next year and 15% the year after. I managed to secure some protection for small schools which are very vulnerable at the moment to cost pressures. St Peter and St Paul should be exempt from both the top slice and the reserves measure.

At the same time, it has been consulting on a Vision for the Future- to 2030, which specifies early prevention of family crises, rich cultural engagement and a cleaner, healthier environment.
Which makes closing children’s centres, libraries and recycling centres look very perverse indeed. But we have passed down a rabbit hole into an absurd place where the vision for the future looks like a series of pleasant platitudes while the services which have been the centre of communities are vulnerable to permanent closure.

The Chancellor’s budget didn’t help and despite a contribution to adult social care, which will be about £10m for Surrey, none of what economists call the underlying fundamentals have been addressed. Pot holes got more money than schools, which, despite the token hand out for “extras” are struggling to maintain a balanced curriculum and support children with special needs, and with CRCs, Children’s Centres and libraries slated for closure, austerity hasn’t ended- it isn’t even the beginning of the end.

The hard decisions the county council is making are not ideologically led. They are driven by a technocratic leadership of very senior officers who are what the NHS calls “Turnaround specialists”, whose job is to cut expenditure ruthlessly while managing the legal and political implications where they can. The imperative is a balanced budget, and the ethos of public service is last season’s outfit, hanging on the rail in the charity shop.

This technocracy changes the nature of the administration as well as the opposition. For the leadership of the council there are few, if any “red lines” which cannot be crossed- these are in effect the statutory entitlements that have legally to be met. Nothing else is safe. At the same time there is a strange schizophrenia which allows them to know that crass money management in the last five years has deepened the crisis (such as expensive placements for looked after children costing £250k a year but no checking of invoices, no outcome measures and no contract with the provider in place. Or highways bills paid where a supervisor is supposed to be on site but isn’t for £500 a day thank you very much, or a specialist digger which costs the tax payer £1000 but can be hired down the road for £250.) These appalling laxities are known to the administration and the culture is changing but no-one’s gone to prison and no councillor who oversaw this farrago has resigned- on the contrary! Cabinet members constantly complain about government neglect or unfairness, but they haven’t resigned from the party in power. It’s as if the government knows that the finances were a basket case and is scolding them, and the councillors are just grumbling about their punishment.

So, the administration, in this case the Cabinet, effectively does what the officers tell them needs to be done. For the politicians, it is for them to try to sell the cuts or find a specious rationale- in the case of the putative library closures the excuse is- they are out of date, young people don’t use them, the buildings need to be multi use etc (most already are!)

For the opposition there is also a change brought about by this situation. We can’t spend money that isn’t there any more than they can. Our role is three fold- to scrutinise proposals for fairness, (here the touchstone must be protecting the vulnerable at all costs) for competence, since the pace of change is very fast, and mistakes can easily be made, and for integrity. By the latter I mean there has to be an honest rationale for what is proposed. Are there contradictions in the arguments, and are they based on an honest appraisal of the situation? It is too easy to see services thrown away, and once they’re gone they’re gone. We have to provide a check. How can the council strengthen family resilience while at the same time closing most of its children’s centres? How can it enrich our cultural life by closing libraries?

We also have to call out the hopeless lack of ambition in looking for investment income, where many local councils have significantly outstripped the county.

These checks for fairness, competence and integrity will mean that we have to challenge what is still palpably inept, such as not checking invoices, not imposing penalties for contracts bungled, not having enough staff to manage quality control. But at a more strategic level we have to call for the council to get smaller, focus on the best local solutions and work with partners to share costs and service delivery. We are constantly being told by the administration that our “partners” are welcoming attempts to work constructively with the borough and district councils and charity/voluntary sector. On the ground, on the other side of that argument, that is, listening to my district council or local charities, there remains suspicion, mistrust, resentment that the county council has always patronised, appeared smug or broken promises. There is a perception that efforts at partnership are token, dogged by a sense of superiority and insouciance. Changing this perception will take a very long time, and anyway, the process is predicated on the status quo of a three tier system of local government which looks outdated, clunky and expensive.
There is one aspect of the council’s Vision for 2030 which is right- the trouble is I don’t trust it to deliver it properly.

It is right that the way out of austerity is for communities to take control of as much as they can for themselves. That is why our Parish Council will run the library if the county closes it. But for communities to take control, there has to be a commensurate “letting go” by the County, and culturally and ideologically they are still incapable of taking that leap. Letting go here means handing over property, passing the management of services and even statutory responsibility to new, invigorated local councils which are run by those who understand their communities, not by those making decisions from afar.

There has for many years been a sense that one day the county council will need to be abolished and the functions transferred to bodies closer to the communities they serve. There has never really been a consensus about what those bodies would look like. Most Boroughs and Districts are too small, say, to be responsible for schools’ admissions or special needs, but there has never been a consensus about how those councils might be clustered to make effective unitary authorities.

Engaging in a debate about the shape of unitary authorities will be sterile, and as likely as not, self-serving for the participants, who probably couldn’t be trusted. What matters for now is that we look to strengthen our communities, take every step we can to enable them to take control, through parish or town councils, not for profit social enterprises or charities. Every pound spent in the voluntary sector is worth two pounds spend in the statutory sector.

And our challenge to the new technocracy of local government austerity has to be based on challenges that our communities will care about- fairness, competence and integrity.
Austerity is definitely not over, but the challenge to its outcomes grows.