Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Talking to Cllr Richard Smith, Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet member for Finance, was a reminder of how important it is for the public sector to have tight control over income and expenditure, and not to overstretch themselves. He is particularly sceptical about some local authorities’ borrowings, building up debt to invest in commercial property, a sector widely recognised for its volatility.
He is also somewhat surprised at the Taxpayers Alliance investigation into the number of empty council-owned properties, with the East of England having the highest number, at 694, between January 2016 and December 2017, costing taxpayers £12 million in maintenance and security. It takes time to agree alternative uses, develop partnerships, and secure planning, but he suggests the process should be accelerated by districts and boroughs to ensure funding isn’t wasted.
Cllr Smith admits that:
“Times are hard, and despite the Prime Minister saying austerity is ending, that isn’t true of local government. Unlike a number of councils, Suffolk is in a quite comfortable position, with a reasonable level of reserves against an annual spend of £520 million, but we are not complacent.
“We’ve saved £300m since 2011, reducing staff to 5,500, a full time equivalent of 4,000, and we are developing an apprenticeship programme to benefit from the £1m we pay in Apprenticeship Levy.
“Nevertheless, we face challenges, especially in social care, with £3 out of every £4 we receive in income being spent on the elderly and frail, as well as children with disabilities, with numbers rising year on year. We expect an 18 per cent increase in children with special needs over the next three years.”
With a growing number of councils experiencing difficulties, including Norfolk County Council facing a further £40m savings as it struggles to balance the books, Cllr. Smith expects to see more joint working across the public sector, “especially with the forthcoming boundary review, which is likely to feed into future savings”. Having appointed a new Director, Suffolk is renewing its focus on co-ordinated procurement.
But, he is concerned about future financial planning. According to him, we are supposed to benefit from 100 per cent business rate retention from next April, but the Government hasn’t decided whether this will be reduced to 75 per cent, or indeed if the policy will change. Yet we are due to lose £16m in rate support grant, and await news as to whether the Fairer Funding Review will actually happen. At present there is too much uncertainty, as our four-year funding agreement with Government ends this year:
“The current preoccupation with Brexit, and now the Leadership campaign, made it difficult to have our voices heard at Government level, despite being on the front line, delivering essential services to our residents.”
Pressure from the County Council Network and special interest groups under the Local Government Association (LGA) eventually led to weekly meetings with James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for housing, communities, and local government. This provides a forum for discussing issues, otherwise overlooked, resulting in a flurry of reports and recommendations now filling the next Prime Minister’s inbox. However, it also adds to local authorities’ frustrations over a lack of clarity, meaning that some are reaching crisis point.
Suffolk enjoys a seemingly affluent reputation, but infrastructure investment has been slow to respond to demand; rail improvements are underway, with faster train services between Norwich, Ipswich and London. However, the road network is inadequate, especially along the coast, and with Sizewell C development plans advanced to beyond Stage 3 of consultation, new roads and better infrastructure are essential.
Although the 10-year project will eventually provide 900 full time skilled jobs, and between 5,000 and 7,000 jobs during the construction phase, inevitably, there will be an impact on local residents, and tourism. Building materials will be transported via the A12, through villages, rather than by sea, as originally hoped, and workers will be housed in temporary accommodation alongside the site instead of permanent structures for subsequent adaption for local housing. Nevertheless, “the long-term economic benefits could be considerable”, explains Cllr. Smith, who has been involved in the process since 2002:
“We have to be more ambitious, working with business and our communities, as well as the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, which is keen to invest in small businesses and start-ups in key growth sectors, including High Tech and Tourism.
“Opportunities will also be linked to our renewal of Suffolk’s Greenest County programme, which attracted investment in offshore wind.”
As the third largest landowner in Suffolk, with a portfolio of farms, depots and offices, the County will review which sites could provide new housing, responding to growing need from young people, as well as older generations wanting to downsize to appropriate accommodation:
“There is a demand for skilled workers in rural areas to operate modern high tech farming equipment, and they need to live locally, so we have to see more flexibility in Planning decisions.”
With Government virtually paralysed for the next couple of months, “we are continuing our budget planning in anticipation that funding issues will be prioritised when the new PM moves into Downing Street,” concludes Cllr. Smith.
BBC’s recent Panorama programmes confirm that the long-awaited Social Services review will be crucial to any council’s budget, as well as the NHS, in caring for vulnerable people across the age range:
“Solutions to the funding dilemma must be a priority for the Government if local authorities are to continue meeting their obligations, delivering excellent services, from education and highways, to libraries and the environment, across their communities.”