Conservative leader of Essex County Council writes to prime minister over cuts
The Conservative leader at County Hall has become the latest council chief to write to the prime minister and warn him about the impact of spending cuts.
Essex County Council leader David Finch has sent David Cameron a hard-hitting letter accusing the government of being blind to the effect reducing funding was having on people.
Mr Finch told the prime minister services will have to be reduced and taxes put up in Essex to hit government-imposed savings and increased costs such as the National Living Wage and National Insurance.
In the three-page missive Mr Finch wrote: “Decisions taken nationally to cut budget lines as they appear on paper do little to understand the practical challenges of delivering those savings on the ground.
“Councils cannot run deficits so the challenge of having to balance our budget in 2016/17 is now a colossal one and one that will not be able to be achieved without making reductions to services and increasing the tax burden on local residents.”
Mr Finch also asks the prime minister to address the “giant disconnect emerging between central government and local government”.
He said he recognised the need to make difficult decisions to cut the deficit, but questioned the way the process had been handled.
Essex County Council has been tasked with finding an additional £53m in savings next year on top of the £70m target already set, having already saved more than £560m since 2010.
A number of council leaders have written to Mr Cameron outlining concerns including most notably Ian Hudspeth, the leader of Oxfordshire County Council, which covers the prime minister’s own constituency.
The leaders of Warrington, Tameside and Hartlepool councils, among others, have also written to the prime minister.
Mr Finch said the funding settlement paid no attention to need, a move he described as “perverse and short-sighted”, had eleventh hour changes which left officers little time to recalculate budgets, while the new social care council tax would only address half of the service costs.
He also said he was “alarmed” at the government’s misunderstanding “or even ignorance” around council reserves, saying they were mostly earmarked for schemes and in reality the council had just 23 days’ of available funding – “not even enough to keep council services running for a month”.
As well as outlining his concerns, Mr Finch also set out four steps which could limit the impact on councils:
• Bring the Better Care Fund forward by one year
• Revisit funding distribution for 2017/18 on the basis of need
• Remove the council tax freeze grant from funding distribution and give it to councils, like Essex, which have supported government
• Give councils more flexibility and freedom to locally manage council tax, such discounts
Mr Finch ends the letter by saying: “The finance settlement has caused some deep unhappiness and unease among many counties.
“The pressures of demographic growth, an ageing population and other cost pressures mean counties like Essex will soon face the prospect of not being able to live within our means.”
A Government spokesman said: “The settlement is currently out for consultation to local authorities and we want to hear their views.
“But the fact remains councils in England will have almost £200bn for services between now and 2020 and the multi-year budgets we are proposing will allow them to spend that money with greater certainty.
“Essex County Council’s core spending power is forecast to increase by 2.8% and the county will have £3.48bn to spend between now and 2020.”