Sunday, 12 February 2017

Council cuts?

At the full County Council meeting in December, the Council voted to reverse both the cuts to the gritting routes, and the dimming & switching off of streetlights in towns and cities in Cambridgeshire (rural roads will still be affected). These are much-needed reversals - the dimmed streetlights in particular caused significant problems around Cambridge - but these reversals have been paid for out of the general reserves.

This is in no way sustainable, and highlights the bind the council is in - over the next 5 years, the Council is forced to make £123 million of savings due to cuts in funding from national government. This is around a quarter of the council's budget (for comparison, the total cost of services in 2015-16 was £412.2 million, and the council spent £147.3 million in capital investments). In 2016-17 alone, the council has to make £40 million in savings. The reduction in streetlights and gritting was meant to be around £1 million of this.

Most of these cuts are due to the government grant being removed - in 2014, the council received £84 million from the government; in 2019, it will be £0. The general reserves lets the council cushion service cuts like the streetlights & gritting in the short term, but at some point there will be no more reserves left - and then, irregardless of the impact or outcry, vital services that people depend on will have to reduce or stop altogether. And this will reduce the quality of life for thousands of the most vulnerable across the county, and potentially cost lives.

Last month we had the cross-county manifesto conference for the County & Mayoral elections in May. The completed manifesto is due to come out at the end of February, but in all our discussions the sheer scale of the budgetary challenge facing the council affected everything we talked about, from transport to social care to schools to the environment.

The maximum council tax raise the council can apply each year is 2%, plus an additional 2%-3% for social care (a 2% rise is an extra 45p a week for a Band C property); if the council applied this raise over the next few years, this will really help ameliorate the cuts and cushion the reduced funding to council services. But the Conservative and UKIP groups on the council refuse to raise council tax; the Conservatives are only willing to accept the 2% social care levy, and UKIP are against any raise whatsoever.

At some point, if no council tax raise is forthcoming, councillors will be forced to make decisions on which services must be cut - services that people depend on. I hope it doesn't reach that stage.