Cllr Malcolm Pate is the Leader of Shropshire Council.
I read with interest the recent article on Conservative Home which made a number of unfair and inaccurate claims about, and criticisms of, Shropshire Council.
I wanted to address, in turn, each of the claims and criticisms in the article – to make you aware of the true facts in each case – and show you that the truth is very different, and much more positive, than you may believe.
Claim/criticism 1: “Shropshire Council spends £200,000 a year on taxis for able-bodied children going to mainstream schools.”
Many of the children and young people in the care of the council are placed some distance away from their home and their school – but it’s vitally important that these youngsters continue to attend their current school.
For our more vulnerable children this is especially important as school is often the one constant in their lives, offering them protection and support.
This is why we spend the money needed to transport them to school and back and I think you’ll agree that this is essential expenditure.
Claim/criticism 2: “Shropshire Council has 22 per cent of their children in care in hugely expensive residential children’s homes rather than with foster carers. The figure is around twice the national average”.
There are currently 299 children in care in the Shropshire Council area, a fall from 313 in March 2015.
And for the first time more children are leaving care in Shropshire than entering it. This year (2015/16) to date 75 children have left Shropshire Council’s care system, and 64 new children have been received into care.
Shropshire Council’s approach is to support children to stay at home with their families wherever possible, rather than take them into care, and the success of this work is reflected in these figures.
Our social workers really are making a positive difference to the lives of families and children and supporting families is something we do really well, but something we’re not able to do enough.
We’re therefore asking people who have experienced the challenges and rewards of parenting and raising children to think if they can offer support and mentoring to other families during difficult times. If so, we ask them to come forward so that we can support and train them to provide support to other families.
We’re also seeking families who can provide short breaks in a family environment to, for example, teenagers or children with behavioural or learning difficulties, to prevent them coming into care.
Claim/criticism 3: “Shropshire Council donates money to Stonewall and Nuclear Free Local Authorities”
The last payment made to Stonewall was in 2012 and this was by Bridgnorth Endowed School for £240. We have no record of any payment ever being made to Nuclear Free Local Authorities.
Claim/criticism 4: “Shropshire Council pays £19.7 million a year of interest – on its £329 million debt mountain”.
It’s true that Shropshire Council does have a debt of more than £300m. It’s something that we’ve inherited and it’s something we would prefer not to have. But the debt is there and we have to decide how best to manage it.
Interest payable spend for the Council is £12.5m in 2014/15, £3m for the Housing Revenue Account and a further £4.2m of unitary charge payments on the PFI schemes. We have not taken out any new borrowing since 2009/10 and have been actively selling capital assets in order to utilise capital receipts to prevent further borrowing. We have also been allowing borrowing to mature during this period and not taken out new borrowing in order to reduce the interest cost to the authority.
Paying interest on the debt is cheaper than paying off the debt itself. Clearly we don’t have the funds to pay off the debt in one go and, even if we did, we would be faced with penalties for early repayment.
And, of course, we’re not the only council with a large debt, and large interest payments.
Claim/criticism 5: “Shropshire Council owns 3,700 works of art; they have no idea of the total financial value of the collection; and have only ‘between one to five per cent on display’.”
We have two collections of Fine Art. The Shirehall collection includes 28 paintings – 23 of which are on display. The Shropshire Museums Fine Art Collection contains 3,700 works, and 30% of these are on permanent display in museums.
Many of the paintings within our collection have been civic donations which were transferred to Shropshire Museums. Some form part of the historic collections of Whitchurch Museum and Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery. Significant local paintings have also been purchased over the past 40 years often with significant grant aid contributions.
The Museum Service’s current collection consists mainly of paintings including oils, water-colours and prints, principally of local topographical interest. Views of Shrewsbury, Ludlow and South Shropshire form the largest grouping. There are also small collections from Much Wenlock and Whitchurch.
At present approximately 30 per cent of the oil paintings in the collection are on permanent display. Many of those not display are in need of conservation work to bring them up to a display standard (10%). Others are of a subject matter that does not fit with our museums’ or partner institutions’ permanent displays.
Our collection of watercolours, drawings and prints cannot be displayed on a permanent basis due to their sensitivity to prolonged exposure to light. These are used to support our museums’ or partner institutions’ programmes of temporary exhibitions. The collection is available for study and research by appointment and is also used to support our education programmes.
Image rights from the Fine Art Collection help to generate a small income for Shropshire Museums which is used to our collection care programmes.
The paintings within the Shirehall collection feature notable figures in local administration and well-known views within the County. They were commissioned by Shropshire County Council from the late 1980s under a policy of commissioning modern works of art and crafts from Shropshire artists and makers.
Claim/criticism 6: “The Council also owns a golf course”.
This is correct, but is not a cause for criticism. Shropshire Council provides a wide range of opportunities for people to keep fit and take part in sport and other leisure activities in order to stay active and healthy. Meole Brace Golf Course in Shrewsbury is just one way in which we do this. The 12-hole golf course is very popular, offers people a cheap and easy way to get some exercise, provides a chance to play golf without having to join a club, and helps to generate income for the council.
Claim/criticism 7: “The Council owns a theatre”.
Again, this is correct, but Theatre Severn in Severn is a success story for the council and the county. Since it opened its doors in March 2009, Theatre Severn has consistently exceeded expectations and last autumn it sold its one millionth ticket. It has played host to a variety of local, national and international acts and performances, with many being sold out months before the event.
The theatre has, as a result of this, contributed millions of pounds into the local economy, with many local bars and restaurants capitalising on the audience numbers by offering pre-show and after-show meal deals. Theatre Severn is therefore a key part of the economic development of both Shrewsbury and Shropshire.
All of this success has led to the overall cost of running the theatre on an annual basis to fall year on year, and it is now one of the best performing regional venues of its size in the country.
Theatre Severn is set to break even next year and our congratulations go to the theatre staff who have given a great deal of thought to providing a programme which attracts people to attend and that makes the theatre viable.
As a result, the theatre is safe from any proposed budget cuts, as long as people continue to use it.
Claim/criticism 8: “The Council owns 19 farms”.
We currently own an agricultural estate of 410 hectares (1,014 acres). The estate comprises 24 holdings of between 4.31 acres and 90.01 acres.
Following a consultation in 2014 about the future of our smallholdings, we agreed to give existing tenants the opportunity to buy their smallholding and we’re currently in ongoing discussions with our tenants.
This will encourage families into home ownership, enable them to own their own farms and to continue farming, and to keep their home and farm in the family.
Claim/criticism 9: “In 2009/10 the Council’s total spending was £219.8 million. In the last financial year it was £223.1 million”.
The increase in spending over this period reflects a rising adult social care budget, and takes into account inflation and rising costs.
Since 2012 we have saved £126m from the budget, and must save a further £77m by 2020/21.
By 2020/21 the budget will be £188m, but 89 per cent (£163m) of this spent on protected services – including adult social care, child safeguarding, waste collections and concessionary fares.
It is dispiriting when the council is unfairly criticised – especially when the information used to do so is untrue or inaccurate.
Times are hard and likely to get harder. Many of our services are under threat due to government funding cuts, and we may have to stop much of what we currently do.
But, despite this, and despite such unfair criticism, the council and our staff continue to provide fantastic services to the people of Shropshire and will continue to do so in the years ahead.
I therefore felt it important to address the inaccurate claims in the article, and to let readers know about Shropshire Council’s successes.