Cllr David Hodge is the Leader of Surrey County Council and the Leader of the Conservative Group on the Local Government Association
As the Chancellor prepares to deliver this year’s spending review we will all be focused on what he plans to do to further strengthen the economy. I have no doubt that he will recognise that local government has an indispensable role to play in charting a successful course for the next five years.
We all know that with Whitehall expecting further council belt-tightening the coming years will be the toughest yet. However, Conservative councils country-wide have already proved they are up to the challenge of being ever-more efficient and effective.
Since 2010 councils have dealt with a 40 per cent drop in funding and have still managed to enhance services while also spurning frontline cuts wherever possible. Local authorities have restructured, shared services and created partnerships, making the most efficient part of the public sector even more effective.
It is testament to our resilience and ingenuity that, according to a survey last year, many people think the quality of public services overall has been maintained or improved and to have achieved this as pressure on essential services has grown enormously is an impressive feat.
No stone has been left unturned in the search for savings. In Surrey, they have totalled £330 million since 2010, whether that has been through striking better deals with suppliers, taking a new approach to delivering better services for young people or teaming up with others in the public sector to share operations and buildings.
Working with the Government as one team to reduce the National Debt has taken us all a long way and I have no doubt that this shared commitment to local services, the nation’s best interests and our party will continue to serve us well. While we won’t always be in complete agreement we share the same aim of building a better Britain.
But the well of efficiencies is drying up while the pressures on us continue to rise – from the growing need for extra school places to the critical changes required in our health and social care system as demand spirals.
In Surrey, 13,000 more school places are needed in the next five years but there is a funding gap of more than £30m in each of the next two years alone. Meanwhile, it has been estimated that adult social care funding nationally will fall short by more than £4bn by the end of the decade.
Of course, devolution is a crucial part of the longer term solution and I’m convinced that Surrey’s proposals with East and West Sussex county councils offer the answers to developing this part of the South East into a truly powerful region for the benefit of the nation.
But alongside the genuine opportunities that devolution offers in the future there’s a pressing need for immediate demographic pressures beyond our control to be recognised today. This leads me to believe that we are approaching a defining moment for local government.
While there aren’t any simple solutions, there is a simple truth. Without extra resources now valued public services that offer care for the vulnerable, help young people into work and keep communities safe and healthy are at risk of being cut, storing up even bigger pressures and costs for the future.
The vision this government has shown for Britain has provided the building blocks we need for the success of our country. But as the Chancellor looks towards a brighter future he must be careful not to ignore the realities that exist today.