Tuesday, 7th November 2017

A Strange Feeling of Impermanence

A Strange Feeling of Impermanence.

I attended a seminar this Monday morning which was led by senior figures in the Local Government Association, looking at ideas for the County Council to save money.

Publicly available information tells us the following about the Council’s current position:

“Over the last six years the Council has achieved annual savings now totalling over £450m. The Medium Term Financial Plan sets out savings of £103m (£93m of initial savings and £10m of Sustainability Review Board savings) for 2017/18, and further £75m of identified savings (plus £58m Sustainability Review Board savings) over the next two years. This revised level of savings is already stretching service reduction plans.”

It is reporting significant overspends:

“Forecast revenue budget outturn for 2017/18, is £17m overspend. This includes:
£9m savings to be identified,
£16m savings considered unachievable in 2017/18,
£11m service demand pressures
£19m underspends and additional income.”

So the financial position seems to be very grim- a tale of unachievable savings, in year overspends, service demands increasing.

The seminar was a survey of some of the ideas which other County authorities had used to manage the steep decline in government funding. It seemed that most of the ideas had been looked at and at least in part adopted by Surrey, so why is the scale of the funding crisis so steep?
It may be that there are historical battles which have been lost and decisions which hindsight would have made differently- the major injustice seems to be the fact that we have lost funding for our population with Learning Disabilities- this seems particularly unfair.

But there is no point in this bleating and the government will not change its mind on the funding. I have a degree of sympathy with the Cabinet members, but only a degree. I find the culture at County arrogant and inflexible, hostile to co-operative arrangements, such as with Parish Councils, and resistant to ideas which are not theirs. I don’t think it is about political views or doctrines either. I think it is a culture of a sense of entitlement and superiority.

I will cite a couple of examples:

Last Friday the Local Committee (County and District Councillors with some officers) met for one of their regular informal meetings. These afford a chance for members to question officers and Cabinet Members on matters of policy.

I was delighted that Cabinet Member Colin Kemp was there- Highways and Street Lights are in his portfolio. We expressed our concern about the street lights being switched off (and noted the large petition on this) before people had travelled home, and whatever the statistics about crime incidents show, there is a real fear of crime which is caused by this drastic cut and which makes such a small saving.

Without arguing at length about what seems to me to be a perverse decision, I asked why County would not let Parish Councils pick up the bill to keep the lights on in their area. Colin seemed to be implacably opposed to this without explaining why- there was no explanation, just a sense that this was an important cut and was the right decision.

Less than a quarter of a million pounds are saved across Surrey. These are very small savings for such a significant impact. I actually wondered if they want a physical symptom visibly to demonstrate austerity, and this is it. We could switch the lights back on for Caterham Hill if they let us. And I still can’t understand why they won’t.

Our Parish Council has agreed to fund some capital refurbishment at our Library. Surrey officers have repeatedly blocked this “gift” and so the windows remain single glazed and the money for it sits in the PC’s bank account.

My view is that whether or not Surrey is a special case, or keeps telling itself it is, unless it recognises that it has to work co-operatively with other bodies to solve problems as they impact communities, it is doomed.

Why are County departments not embedded in Boroughs and Districts, sharing infrastructure and other resources? Why aren’t we considering transferring some functions to Boroughs and Districts to deliver if they could do it cheaper?

Like it or not the three tiers of local government in Surrey are essentially inefficient. My solution would be to divide the County into three “Divisions” and allocate the statutory functions of the County Council to a lead Borough/District in each “Division”.

That way we could deliver services closer to the people they serve, sell County Hall and save all that expense, and benefit from sharing the infrastructure we all pay for.

Being closer to the people and communities might mean that particular pieces of nonsense, which we had to find out about through a Freedom of Information enquiry because the officers refused to release the information, would be less likely to happen. I have been banging on about the Dormers Care Home on Foxon Lane being left empty. Just keeping it empty cost taxpayers £51,000 last year. Imagine that! What nonsense. They refused to release the information presumably out of a sense of shame!!

Children’s Services

The latest spot check from Ofsted, based on a two day visit at the end of October, indicates that there are still basic problems with the delivery of children’s services, which do not need to be transformed, just delivered competently. If the final Ofsted in the New Year finds such grim results the services will be taken over by another authority.

However, Surrey has a good reputation for its schools, 94% of which are good or better. It was good to meet parents at St Peter and St Paul Infant School last week and offer my support for what looks like an exciting future. All the schools in my Division are good or better and it is good to know that our community is so well served.

One of the reasons for the success of Surrey’s schools has been the work they contracted a firm called Babcock to do to improve schools. It has been a success. Unfortunately, the contract with them is coming to an end in March and school improvement will be done by school to school support. This might well work.

However, one element of the successful school improvement programme will be lost unless we can find a way to save it- the governance support programme, staffed by volunteer Advanced Skills Governors, of whom I am one. Ask a Head Teacher about the importance of having a skilled governing body and they will affirm that unless they have one they are significantly impaired in delivering high quality education. Governors are volunteers and so occasionally they can become dysfunctional. ASGs sort that out. I am looking forward to a meeting this week which offers hope for the survival of this vital programme.

Mental Health Awareness Day.

The last County Council meeting was on 10th October, which happened to be Mental Health Awareness Day, which the Council acknowledged.

I “came out” to my fellow councillors as a lifelong sufferer from depression, at times very serious, and hoped that such a declaration might play some small part in reducing stigma.

And Finally……..

All politicians (or elected public servants, as I prefer to dub myself) know that they are there at the will of the people- thus there is always a sense of impermanence. I believe that sense might be starting to creep through County Hall itself.