East Sussex County Council declares it is facing “intense” financial pressure. It says it is being forced to cut back services to a “core offer” outlined in this Council paper. The drastic plight is being compared in Northamptonshire. But there is a difference. Councils are under a legal obligation to set balanced budgets. They are not allowed to run deficits – unlike the arrangement with the NHS, for instance. However, we don’t usually talk of an NHS Trust being “bankrupt” if it runs a deficit in a particular year. Northamptonshire was failing to maintain a balanced budget, and so central Government intervened. In East Sussex, the Council at its own volition is planning for “a worst case scenario deficit budget position by 2021/22”.
In one respect, I am sympathetic in the case of East Sussex, in that the Council is not just asking for more Government grant as a solution to it’s woes. It does also call for more localism – greater flexibility over what the money is spent on:
“We call for the removal of those Government requirements that would not be our highest priorities if we were able to target our resources at areas of greatest need. For example, the £8m we are obliged to spend on concessionary fares for older people would provide care packages to allow 700 of the most vulnerable people in this group to continue live independently.”
Another example it gives is the cost of school transport. The Council transports 4,492 children from home to school – at a cost of £11.4 million a year. If the child’s nearest suitable school is beyond two miles (if below the age of eight) or beyond three miles (if aged between eight and 16), then the Council has a “statutory responsibility” to pay. The Council feels the cost is “prohibitive” and “requires review”. I agree. Is it fair for (often poor) Council Taxpayers to pay for daily taxi rides for the children of (often rich) parents? There should be a wider presumption of parental responsibility to get their children to school.
The Council’s annual budget is £370 million a year – that’s only a million pounds less than in 2010 in terms of cash. But then we have had inflation over the last eight years – if the budget had increased in line with prices, it would be about £450 million. On the other hand, for several years before 2010, the spending increases were well above inflation.
Then the Council makes the point that its area has a higher ratio of old people than the country as a whole – and so has greater social care pressures. That is a fair point. But the – fiendishly complicated – methods which calculate central Government grants to Councils does take this into account, along with how many children there are, the level of deprivation, and an array of others “needs.” Just as it will also take into account that East Sussex have relatively high property values – which increase Council Tax revenues as more households are paying higher bands. Of course the Council will say it ends up hard done by – but then every Council does.
What savings could the Council secure without cutting useful services? One big items of spending is interest of debt – that cost £19.8 million last year. The Council’s long term debt is £268 million. The Council owns 4,440 acres – but currently only plans to sell 11 of them. No joint venture housing developments are planned for any of its land. The Council owns six car parks, two leisure centres, three farms, a theatre, a restaurant and a couple of shops.
According to the last official return, the Council had 560 children in care. In terms of the number of children per 10,000, it is 53 – compared to West Sussex where it is 39. The latest Council paper says the figure for East Sussex is now 606 – which equates to 57 per 10,000. What is being done to ensure that children in care that are in mainstream education are placed with foster carers rather than institutional children’s homes? What is being done to increase the number of children placed for adoption and to reduce delay in the process? What is being done to ensure children in care have the chance to go to boarding school? The Council spends £69 million on Children’s Services – much of it in ways that is deeply damaging.
East Sussex Council has £27.3 million for its Public Health grant this year. At present, this spending is very ineffective. In 2016, East Sussex’s spending included over half a million on “Personal Health Plans” – which that year only resulted in seven people giving up smoking and 19 claiming to have drunk less alcohol. The Government is lifting the ring fence on Public Health spending. That will give councils the chance to use it more effectively – not least on easing adult social care pressures.
Other councils have shown ways to reform social care and cut spending while maintaining or improving the service. The arrangements in Bath and North East Somerset for contracting out this service to Virgin Care is providing better integration with the NHS. This is an innovative approach.
Local authority social care responsibilities are not only for children and the elderly, but also for adults with learning difficulties. Many councils have made substantial progress in improving the lives of disabled residents by taking part in the Shared Lives scheme. This offers an alternative for those currently in supported living or institutional care. It allows them to be placed in a family environment in someone’s home. Some councils have done far more to make these opportunities available than others.
It is true that demand for some services – certainly social care – is likely to increase. It is responsible for councils to face up to those and make plans well in advance. But being honest about those pressure should also mean accepting that there are many opportunities to meet them while also improving the services that are provided.