Acres have been written on this website and elsewhere about the shortcomings of the PBR. I do not want to revisit these well-rehearsed arguments, except to say that from my point of view the PBR will not do nearly enough to support the people I represent in Essex.
Essex County Council provides services for over 1.3m residents. The people of Essex are crucial to us and supporting them is why we are here. As Leader of one of the largest local authorities in the country I have worked together with colleagues to ask what we, in Local Government, should do to help during this recession. What answers can we supply to the problems Government has failed to solve?
Last week I chaired a special session of the Essex Management Board to look at what steps we could take to support both Essex families and businesses during this difficult time. The Essex Management Board is the body that represents the Essex public sector and includes the police, fire, health, skills and higher education sectors.
I am proud that following this meeting we were able to announce a
package of proposals that will not only help to counter the effects of
the recession, but will also help those for whom the difficulties of
the economic crisis are most acute.
I wanted to highlight a few of these proposals as I believe they show what local government should and could be doing to help.
Supporting our businesses will help us out of the recession and I will
come on to the measures we want to adopt in this regard shortly. But
while we are in the recession, we also think it is our duty to help
those who are struggling the most.
A key part of our package is the commitment to provide direct financial
assistance to households throughout the county. This will be done
through a council tax rebate. Early next year a lump sum payment will
be made available to around 30,000 of the county’s most vulnerable
households – particularly targeting those over 80 years of age. This
would be equivalent to a Council Tax rebate of £100.
We will also campaign to raise awareness of the additional support that
exists for those on low incomes. We calculate that over £19 million in
annual benefits for pensioners would have gone unclaimed without the
work we undertook to raise awareness last year. The tax and benefit
system in the country is overly complicated meaning that many of the
most needy do not get the benefits they are entitled to. During a
recession extra effort must be made to ensure this money does get
through to the poor and vulnerable in society.
I want to move on to our proposals for assisting Essex businesses.
Essex is an entrepreneurial place. Our people are instinctively
business minded and there are thousands of small and medium sized local
businesses throughout the county. We, of course, want to do all we can
to support these businesses and believe that they hold the key to
economic recovery. Our package includes a number of measures to do just
Firstly, the European Investment Bank allocates around EUR30 billion to
support SMEs. We want to help our local business access some of these
We therefore propose to create a Bank of Essex; this would work as a
special delivery vehicle acting as an intermediary to release these EIB
funds for local, Essex, SMEs.
Alongside this we have pledged to continue to invest significantly in
our local SMEs – we have contracts with over 1,600 local suppliers. We
will be reviewing our procurement process to help support local
suppliers, encouraging more of them to bid for these contracts. As part
of this programme, we will work with Business Link and the Federation
of Small Businesses to tap into those local SMEs that could benefit
from bidding but for whatever reason have so far been put off from
Cash is king in a recession and we are committed to ensuring timely
payment of invoices. To this end we will modify our payment systems to
ensure speedier payment and we will also establish a financial help
desk to enable struggling companies to request early payment of
60% of eligible Essex small businesses do not claim the small business
rate relief meaning there is a significant amount of assistance that
remains untapped. We will be working with these businesses to raise
awareness of this benefit. Small businesses are vital to the economy
and livelihoods of hard working families, this relief can, in some
cases, make the difference.
Finally, getting the young into work is, of course, vital for the
future health of the economy. We will create a county wide’ Essex
Apprentice’ scheme which would make available apprentices to small
businesses that may otherwise be unable to take young people on in the
current economic conditions.
These are only a number of our proposals which will be taken forward
over the coming weeks. They show that Local Government could and should
play a major role in helping their residents through the recession.