The Government should not force Surrey to make frontline cuts

Today was the annual budget-setting meeting for Surrey County Council.  This is the speech I made.

I cannot support this budget.  As an opposition member here in Surrey I only get to vote on the budget envelope rather than on what’s inside. This budget hides all the details which could mean deeper cuts to care services while leaving every Surrey resident, rather than tax dodgers, facing a 4% tax hike.

This Council accepts the government’s two – not so generous – offers: firstly to eliminate all funding in two years not four, and secondly to raise council tax by 4% not 2% – but this still leaves us with a budget gap.

The government appears to be quite happy for Councils like ours to deal with deepened funding cuts by cutting spending on adult social care and children’s services, while infrastructure spend such as on highways, street lights and waste disposal is bound up in long term contracts and can’t be cut.

The biggest question in this budget is what its impact will be on care, which is the majority of Surrey County Council’s spending each year. The £12 million extra that the Council will receive from opting for a 4% not 2% tax increase is not enough to plug the shortfall. So, will the budget take us below what we need to provide an acceptable standard of care in Surrey? As this budget comes without any detail or equality impact assessment we don’t know what the impacts will be on Surrey’s most vulnerable residents.

This year, like Councils across the UK, Surrey has already made frontline service cuts to its public health budget – it should promise not to repeat such cuts this year. Also, since last year’s budget, Surrey County Council has committed to close all six of its remaining residential care homes, and day care centres including the longstanding Colebrook Centre in Redhill. This budget needs a ‘Mum Test’ to see if continued cuts in care are even safe. Cutting long-term health and care spending will cost both the Council and the NHS more in the future.

And what about the impacts of this budget on those already struggling to make ends meet with current council tax levels? The Inequality in Elmbridge report recently highlighted that income is the biggest determinant of poverty in Surrey.

At meetings like this up and down the country, councils are being forced by two cynical offers to cut care so that the Government can waste billions on super-expensive nuclear power, road building so that we can expand airports and renewal of nuclear weapons. We should be investing our money, locally and nationally, in ways that improve our quality of life within our resource and climate limits – not a dash for short-term gain that makes our society more unequal and profligate.

Neither is it right that it is just councillors that seem to be expected to understand the budget in Surrey. The briefing document I received last week is confidential, as were the financial briefings of councillors over the course of the whole year.

This budget is complicated but it’s not as long as the 22,298 pages of the UK tax code I heard about on Channel 4 Dispatches last night. This is where the government should be making changes – cutting pages of tax avoidance loopholes instead of cutting the basic standard of care delivered to residents across our country.

Finally, let’s be clear, Surrey is a lean, well run council, not a regional centre of profligate waste, ripe for back room office cuts. There has already been a programme of public sector reform that has trimmed service budgets across the Council in recent years.

Continuing this process, and doing this at speed as the government intends will mean cuts to front-line services, as reflected in the current consultation to save money by cutting bus services (have your say by 14 March 2016) and recent reduction in opening hours and new charges for using Surrey’s recycling centres. These are false economies: saving money here won’t encourage more people to enjoy public transport or take recycling to the next level.

A different approach is needed. Council tax rises of 4% and care cuts imposed on councils across the UK are neither the fairest or best way to balance the UK’s budget. The government should make corporate tax avoiders, not council tax payers, reach deeper into their pockets.

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