Surrey County Council budget: Let’s demand better funding for Councils and invest in services for a better future

Surrey County Council’s financial problems are set to continue as a Council Tax rise of 6% was announced, as well as £66 million of spending reductions required in the next financial year.

The proposals will be approved by the County Council’s Conservative Cabinet next week before all Councillors vote on the proposals at the Budget setting meeting on Tuesday 6th February 2018.

Instead of asking the public for a 6% Council Tax rise whilst hiding the budget details and investing a billion in property across the UK, the Council leadership should be calling for better funding for councils whilst investing in making our council services, quality of life and environment better for the long-term.

I am deeply concerned that services in Surrey are being cut across the board because the Government refuses to provide the necessary funding for vital social care services. There is a national crisis in the funding of care which can only be addressed if the Government finally recognises that local councils are at breaking point.

There are also proposals to reduce funding to children’s services by around 10% this coming year and to further reduce the public health grant. This is a total false economy. These cuts could cause real damage to how we support and prepare the next generation for the world ahead of them.

Council tax is an unfair and regressive form of taxation and does not take into account peoples’ ability to pay. A 6% rise will hit those on fixed incomes the hardest and will be unaffordable for some in Surrey. Large Council Tax rises are a sticking plaster for the real problem – huge cuts to local government from the Conservatives in central government. Until the lack of funding is addressed, the County Council will be pushed to continue to raise council tax by the maximum possible.

Here in Surrey, the budget process is still shrouded in secrecy. There is a lack of transparency around where the additional cuts will fall and when – let alone the multi-year cuts already agreed in previous years. It is not acceptable to ask councillors to vote on a budget when the full financial impact has not been disclosed to them in any shape or form. We should not again be asked to vote on a financial “envelope”, without sharing the details of what the service changes to meet the millions of pounds worth of cuts actually represent.

The business rates retention pilot scheme, which Surrey is part of, is not the way to address this problem. We need a sustainable solution, not this one off fix, which is still inadequate to address the County Council’s budget pressures. Instead of funding councils by how strong the economy is locally, they should be funded based on what the council must deliver – not just better education and social care, but better recycling and transport.

Surrey’s finances remain in a poor condition with an even harsher settlement proposed for 2019/20 as several one-off funding streams come to an end. For a sustainable budget going forward, the County Council needs to invest to make services better in the long term instead of short term cuts, including through outsourced contracts, which simply kick the can down the road. Their Conservative colleagues in central government need to choose to prioritise the funding of local councils properly, including to fund social care.

Finally, alongside the cuts Surrey Conservatives are investing up to £1 billion in property at marginal returns, including warehouses and shopping centres outside Surrey. We should be choosing instead to improve our own services, improving value by bringing outsourced contracts back in-house, and investing in renewable energy and efficiency gains to make Surrey more sustainable. This could help reduce the budget pressures but a better and more equitable settlement from government is still required.

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