Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Full council budget setting

We had the full council meeting at Cambridgeshire County Council today where we set our annual budget. I always find these events both frustrating and interesting.

Developing a budget at the moment is really difficult. Our proposals as a Conservative group are a combination of ambitious (trying to promote investment and growth) and difficult (in that we are still having to drive the council forwards whilst having to make cuts because of reductions in Government funding). It is dealing with that conflict that meant we agreed a 1.96% council tax rise. We would have preferred not to do that, but the other options were just not viable.

From my perspective as Cabinet Member for Adult Services, the financial situation means that we had to take more money out of the Adult Social Care budget, but I believe we have put forward a plan which is deliverable, but challenging. There was considerable agreement across the council that we are doing the right things in terms of trying to drive forward on our transformation and prevention agenda (I.e. trying to change the way the public sector works as a whole, whilst also gearing ourselves up more to prevent the need for people to use services by keeping them healthier) and also trying to minimise the cost of care packages without effecting their effectiveness, all of course whilst lobbying Government to do its bit to deal with this National problem.

Where I have a problem, is with the Lib Dems alternative budget. My view about the alternative budget is that it should be used to discuss and demonstrate how the opposition would be strategically different; reprioritise, maybe highlight where they would try to find more savings and maybe highlight different approaches to Council tax. I can respect that approach, and indeed some of the comments from individual Lib Dems did do that, but increasingly the Lib Dems as a body try to identify a high profile project (one that is undeliverable normally), pretend they can use it to generate millions of pounds worth of extra money and then spread that money around like confetti so they can make headline grabbing announcements about their pet projects. This time they did it in spades.

A major part of their plans was built around the sale of Shire Hall, the main council building in Cambridge. I hope I can use this to highlight why and how their plans lack credibility. The point is, even if selling Shire Hall were a good idea (and I don't think it is, but accept it is a matter for debate) selling it now, when the property market is at its lowest would be a scandalous waste of public money, it would also need to be accompanied by a sensible plan to accommodate staff, capacity for the meetings we need to have etc. etc. What they came up with was a quart into a pint pot alternative that just didn't stack up.

However, my biggest concern was the scandalous way they had ignored reality in order to generate headlines. Within local Government there is a widespread recognition that the adult social care issues are huge. For example, in Cambridgeshire the number of over 90s is forecast to increase by 73% between 2012 and 2023. Whilst it is great that people are living longer, it obviously means more people are going to need support. Indeed there is a "graph of doom" floating around local Government that shows that the ageing population will mean that in 20 years time all the money local councils bring in will have to be spent on support for vulnerable adults, except a small amount on children - I.e. absolutely nothing for gritting, potholes, public transport etc. etc. So we have to find savings in order to deal with a conflicting combination of less funding and higher demand.

So in the light of this, you would have thought that having prayed to their magic money tree and found £33m pounds worth of revenue over five years, the Lib Dems would have recognised the problem and invested a significant amount of it dealing with this important issue. However, There is a problem with that sensible approach; whilst the issues are vitally important, investing in social care rarely makes headlines. We have a budget of £195.5m next year for adult social care, and had to find savings equivalent to £12.4m in order to deliver that, Yet, in what is recognised as the most most financially challenging area of a local council's business, the alternative put forward by the Lib Dems was to put just £250k back.

It is quite clear that the alternative budget is less about responsible opposition and more about irresponsible headline grabbing. I think an objective observer would say that it was torn apart by every other political group. Normally the Lib Dems can find some support from somewhere in the chamber, this year there was virtually none - that on its own says a huge amount.

I could go on and on about the Lib Dem approach (and often do) but I will add that there were many of their usual tricks - taking credit for the work of others, protecting their own Cambridge centric base by proposing more wind turbines for Fenland etc., but I will end there.

On another note, it was interesting the way there was more than one debate taking place today. Of course we were all listening and contributing in the council chamber, but there was also an engaging debate taking place amongst Councillors and others on Twitter. This, to me, shows the power of social media - it had the ability to take a debate that was happening in one place and spread it to a much wider audience. Let me make it plain that there was no sense of one debate taking focus from the other, in fact they were very complementary and equally focused (albeit with a different feel to the Twitter debate).

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