I hope you all had a pleasant Christmas and that we may look forward to a more prosperous and less eventful New Year.
Norfolk rejected the devolution deal as it was and the Government have withdrawn the offer. Votes taken at Mid Suffolk and Suffolk County Councils, after the rejection, were by a large majority for the talks with the Government to continue.
We Liberal Democrats believed that the additional layer of government proposed, the Mayor, was a waste of money that added little to the ability to produce solutions that match Suffolk people’s needs. However, we also believe that British Government is overly centralised with far more taxes raised centrally and spent by Whitehall than in other countries. We voted for the search for a meaningful devolution of powers to Suffolk that avoids the defects in the rejected offer to continue.
Scrutiny of County Budget proposals for 2017-18
Our 30th November scrutiny covered the County budget proposals as they are now. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was just a few days old but the settlement for Local Government, which defines the final sums, was not due until mid-December so changes are likely. However, the county and districts signed up last year to a deal that set the core figures for four years.
The Revenue Support Grant (£45.2M) from Government, which is dropping rapidly, combined with Business Rates (£97.8M), Council Tax (£277.4M and a Public Health Grant (£30.8M) are the main items that fund your services together with small items totalling (£11.7m) and a separate sum for schools (£242M last year) but reducing as schools move to become academies.
The proposal is for the “Social Care Precept” to continue, with a further council tax rise of 2% (on top of the 2% from last year). This will bring in £11.2M, making a total of £474.1M excluding schools.
The total funds needed, after savings shown (£xx saving) are Care and Community Services £216M (£8.85M saving) Children & Young People £100.75M (£3.1M saving) Public Health & Fire Service £54.43M (1.93M saving) Resource Management (including Public Transport, Highways and Waste) £78.69M (£10M saving), Corporate and Capital Financing £30.97M (£8.22M saving). This gives a total of £480.84M (£32.1M saving)
This looks a problem but the County has reserves that have grown from £109.8M to £148.8M over the last 5 years and use of £6.74M will make the figures match.
Buried in this is a £5.4M saving on Care purchasing, £4.27M on contract savings and £3.1M on Children’s services. We were told that this can be achieved by changes that do not hurt the people involved but it is impossible to get proof of that. In addition demand is growing every year.
This is a bit complicated but I hope it gives you a feel of how the County uses your money and where savings will be made.
Despite the Easton and Otley College commitment to change bus routes, I believe that there was a significant delay caused when a convoy of Otley Buses met a bus travelling in the opposite direction in Barham. Clearly more work is needed.
MSDC planners briefed parishes on the reserved matters process and the Parishes are deciding at what level they need to be involved. Extended consultation times will make it easier to the work required and gain local views.
I need to arrange for a discussion with the county highways planners so that the parishes can discover just what will be done to ensure traffic issues remain acceptable with this development on top of all the recent proposals.
MSDC is pressing ahead with its plans to “de-shelter” parts of its sheltered housing that it finds difficult to let due to their rural locations and will be charging residents for all costs associated with sheltered schemes in any way. However, I have helped to persuade it that in our area changes will only occur when tenants change.
No real consideration appears to be given to the financial and social benefits that occur if people move to accommodation focused on their needs and release larger houses to families. Availability of sheltered accommodation may also delay the need to move to much more expensive care homes and ease load on the NHS by allowing people to move from hospital to a supported environment.
District Council Financial Forecasts
Finance Forecasts appear to show that the district is likely to remain in surplus despite reductions in Government grant funding but dependant on what happens to the New Homes Bonus. This gives a sum equivalent to the council tax to the district council for a number of years for each home built in the district. The Government are proposing a reduction to four years from the current six but has yet to confirm its decisions after consultations.
Borrowing to Invest, or Profit for Purpose
Borrowing of £25 million by both Mid Suffolk and Babergh to fund investment in commercial property for a rental return is moving forward with agreement to set up a joint investment vehicle. Schemes of this type can be very successful when spare cash or bequests are invested in developments that give a secure return. Trinity College’s ownership of parts of Felixstowe is a case in point. However, I am concerned that the current low interest rates for borrowing may not be as securely locked in as we think and the empty properties in the Anglia Retail Park show that commercial rents may not be secure. Just how big the risk may be is difficult to judge.