Cllr Tony Devenish is a Westminster City Councillor, a member of the London Assembly and a former Euro candidate for the South East of England.
Conservative led Surrey County Council has announced a referendum on increasing Council Tax by 15 per cent, blaming the costs of caring for an elderly population. This represents a £190 a year increase for an average Band D property. While many in Local Government, on a cross- Party basis, have sympathy with the real pressures an ageing population brings to delivering public services , proposing a referendum seems, as Sir Humphrey would say in Yes Minister, a ‘brave decision’.
My own mother is Surrey born and bred and is still a beneficiary of Surrey Social Service help after a stay in Surrey NHS. She turns 87 in February. Happy birthday mum. But as a ‘True Blue’, these are the questions many Surrey residents will be asking their County Council:
1. Local Government went through an unprecedented generous pay and benefits rise under Tony Blair’s Government. Before 2010 the Guardian jobs pages resembled a telephone directory. While the overall number of staff has dropped, the County Council’s own website says Surrey still employs 1,500 staff. I would estimate that half of these have little or nothing to do with Social Services. County Council middle managers can enjoy an average pay, benefits, and pension of £80,000 per annum during years’ of low inflation. Has Surrey County Council really done everything it can to make staff more productive?
2. Many London Borough Councils, both Conservative and Labour, have demonstrated a sense of urgency in responding to ‘cuts’. Land values have meant town halls, sports centres , libraries, and a wide range of other Council buildings and land are being better utilised. Freeholds have mostly been retained, rather than selling the ‘family silver’, and long term leases agreed with Universities, house builders and other developers. This has helped create jobs locally, built homes, and provided a revenue stream to plug funding gaps in Council budgets. Surrey has land values second only to London. Has this Council really done all it can in ‘sweating’ its large property assets ?
3. Procurement. I regularly speak with leading Plc’s and third sector and charitable providers to public organisations who feel Surrey could saving more in this area. Surrey County Council have undertaken some initiatives but have the reputation that they could go further. Is this wrong ?
4. I very much respect local government Leaders including Surrey’s David Hodge. A decent man. But I have to confess it really grates that there is an unspoken prejudice amongst many in the public sector that all residents in London and the Home Counties are ‘rich’ and can afford another ‘only another £190’. Not everyone in Surrey is a footballer or the much loved actress and Deputy Lord Lieutenant Penelope Keith. Cost of living pressures are high in Surrey as they are in London. It is essential that those controlling a multi-Billion County Council budget account for every penny before going to residents who are forever being asked for more money from the taxman, the railways, the energy companies, and even supermarkets who shrink the size of a packet of biscuits and think we do not notice.
Cllr Hodge is right that the Government needs to respond to the demographic time bomb. George Osborne did not help with his Gordon Brown style budgets. But we collectively have until the 2020s to come up with a comprehensive solution. Part of the solution in the meantime is that all of us in public service treat taxpayers money as carefully as our own, then we will pursued our new Prime Minister and Chancellor to trust those of us in local government with more local autonomy and taxpayers money.