Cllr Vivienne Michael is the Leader of Mole Valley District Council.
I’m not sure whether Surrey County Council’s Conservative Administration looked at the recent history of local referendums before deciding to propose a 15 per cent increase in Council Tax, but it doesn’t bode well. Extra police on the beat – that’s got to be a vote, or rather referendum, winner surely? Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner certainly thought so when he asked taxpayers for a significant increase in the police precept – but he was wrong, very wrong. More than twice as many people voted against his proposals than supported them.
Those of us in local government don’t doubt SCC’s figures. In fact, they have been independently supported by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. We know how severe the cuts have been and we know all about the pressures on adult social care and other essential services. We know that Cllr David Hodge and his Cabinet Members are all decent people committed to public service and sincere in their belief that they have no choice. But in this age of “alternative facts” and “post-truth” what hope is there for SCC’s argument that they are just being honest with residents?
Social media is already awash with criticism of the “excessive” salaries of senior officers and a petition has been launched calling for the abolition of Surrey’s Chief Executive Officer post. Members themselves aren’t being spared the public backlash and the administration’s decision to increase allowances significantly a couple of years ago is coming back to haunt it. No matter that the sums involved don’t add up. No matter that Surrey’s CEO deals with a budget of over £1 billion and with matters as diverse as potholes and learning disabilities.
No matter either that, like all local authorities, SCC has made significant savings in recent years. One problem is that, hand on heart, who can say that, given more radical thinking, more can’t be done. Two-tier arrangements confuse the public – on occasion they can even confuse councillors – and there’s a reason for that. Governance structures are too complex, they need to be streamlined and we can’t put off forever the radical thinking needed to do this. Could we be making better decisions for Mole Valley residents if we worked more closely together at a strategic level? Do we need 81 County Councillors and more than 40 District Councillors in each of 11 Districts and Boroughs? It’s not easy to get the balance right between local decision-making and efficiencies, but these questions need to be asked – and quickly.
Of course, no amount of radical thinking will solve next year’s problems and the Government needs to recognise this and step in urgently. At the very least they need to restore the funding previously ring-fenced for learning disabilities. It’s easy to see how, with the Labour Party in disarray and the Lib Dems down to eight MPs, our MPs are tempted to ignore the local vote. But this is a mistake.
Despite all the cuts to local government, Mole Valley District Council has set balanced budgets, kept Council Tax increases below the rate of inflation, kept charges – such as car parking – low, and protected services. Until this year, when we made the conscious decision to invest, we were a no debt council. We’ve done this through innovation and partnership working – we share a CEO, we have shared environmental health and building control services – and a new joint waste contract will deliver savings of £1.3 million a year.
With a record like this, you would think we would have a huge majority but, no, we have a majority of just three. We certainly can’t afford to ignore the challenge from the Liberal Democrats, or indeed the Independents, and I would suggest that Government can’t either because, in politics, as we all know, things can change very quickly.
So, the Government must act to support Surrey in the short term. In the longer term, surely centrally funded social care joined up with the NHS is the fair and effective way forward. But local government needs to look at itself, too – even in the leafy lanes of Surrey there is much hidden hardship and none of us can afford to forget that.