Cllr Chris Botten – LibDem leader’s opposition speech to the County Council Budget.

All Lib Dem Councillors and most opposition voted against this budget which was passed 54:17 with 3 abstentions.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am setting out this morning the reasons
why I and my group will be voting against the budget papers as
presented to us; we understand the extreme difficulties the council
faces in producing a balanced budget, but we believe some core
principles have been elided and some significant failures to address
important issues are manifest.
In terms of the failures, they are as follows:
There is a failure to update our treasury management policies so as to
generate the best level of income from investment funds; as a result,
there are cuts in services which might otherwise be unnecessary. We
need to be up with the best at this and aiming for at least 6%; we are
far from there.
There is a failure to address our property portfolio in what is looking
like a failed Joint Venture so that residents see valuable property
empty, boarded up and wasting valuable resource. This is bad for the
council’s image with residents, misses key opportunities to support
funding for services and leaves an outward and visible sign of inaction
and neglect.
The budget is balanced by identifying savings in adult social care and
children’s services, the vast majority of which are invisible to
members, are identified as risky or very risky in terms of deliverability
and of which the impact on residents we cannot know. We cannot
sign off the unknown.
While we recognise the necessity, we cannot know how residents’
entitlements will be affected. We welcome the fact that there is now
a drive to improve our children’s services, but we cannot know how
this drive is balanced with very deep cuts. We are asked to trust; we
are asked to take a leap in the dark.

If we voted for this budget, we would be guessing at the impact on
residents and so cannot make an informed judgement. While it is
hard to know how the impacts could have been made known to us,
the cuts required are deeper and more wide ranging as a result of the
council’s failure to address the deep rooted problems which have
been identified over the last five years at least; the council’s
complacency, its wishful thinking, its banking on a chimerical bail-out,
and failure to address the treasury management and property
portfolio comes back to haunt us and make life so much harder.
We support the thrust of the proposals on SEND but have major
concerns about how families will experience the process; there is a
major issue of trust which families have in the fairness, timeliness and
appropriateness of SEND provision while so many children have to
travel outside Surrey and have to fight for their children’s
entitlements. We cannot take these matters on trust. When you
consult in future, please be specific about what you are consulting on.
We cannot support the closure of the children’s centres as currently
proposed. The failure to have a satellite in South Tandridge, the
closure of the Leatherhead centre which serves the very deprived
North Leatherhead population, indicates that the analysis of the
current provision is either hurried or flawed. More work should have
been done to configure the new proposals more sensitively, possibly
with a phased roll out.
We cannot support the budget because our back office costs are
among the most expensive in the country. We find it baffling that we are cutting services deep and paying £2.5m on interim management-
with so many appointments invisible to members and staff disappearing without explanation. That doesn’t mean we have a problem with the staff recruited- we don’t, we have a problem with the lack of transparency and process, and we have to explain it to residents. The problem is, we can’t.

We can’t support the budget because despite all my urging in this
chamber many times, residents are going to pay more for services
without the confidence that their quality will be properly assured.
I have asked for a charter which will promise that contracts will be
properly enforced, potholes will stay repaired and the council’s
services will earn a reputation for competence. Our Vision to 2030
needs to contain a more explicit compact so that residents can be
sure that their hard earned taxes will pay for safe, competent, class
leading services we can be proud of. We have a long way to go before
we can get to that.
We do not underestimate the challenges the council faces or the
crisis in local government funding; the austerity programme is
unnecessary and ideologically driven.
So we cannot collude with cuts we can’t understand, which are
deeper than they need be, and which will have impacts we cannot
know, let alone measure. We need a charter of promises for our
residents to guarantee them quality and trust.
This budget is a leap in the dark for a council with no parachute.

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