Give us a fair deal - council boss

A FAIR deal from Whitehall – that's the plea of Suffolk county council's chief executive Mike More, who wants earlier notice of the Government's annual cash aid for local government and full funding of the extra services required by ministers.

A FAIR deal from Whitehall – that's the plea of Suffolk county council's chief executive Mike More, who wants earlier notice of the Government's annual cash aid for local government and full funding of the extra services required by ministers.

In a wide-ranging interview with EADT Political Editor Graham Dines, Mr More defended the decision to employ outside consultants to publicise the Sunday opening of libraries and said the county council was detailed how the authority was working to prevent a repeat of this year's controversial 18.5% rise in tax.

IT'S 5pm on a Thursday afternoon in December at county hall. A brown envelope finally arrives by special delivery from Whitehall, giving the council treasurer the "good news" – or not – on how much money the Government has decided to provide to support the authority's services.

It was scenario repeated up and down the country over the years, not matter whether the Conservatives or Labour formed the Government.

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No matter how much work had been carried out in the previous months, nothing really prepared councils for the whims of central government. Ministers made the decision on rate support grant and that was that.

It left the council just five or six week to work out the details of how much money they had been given and what priorities the Government want implemented, and how much householders then had to fork out to foot the rest of the bill.

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Despite constant pressure from councils, especially since universal capping was introduced in the early 1990s, the Government has refused to budge on the date it makes its cash aid known

"It needs to much earlier. It is not a sensible way to treat large organisations with big budgets," says Suffolk's county council's chief executive Mike More. "This Government has made some good moves, introducing the three year comprehensive spending review, but unfortunately the distribution mechanism, which determine how much each individual authority receives, is still very late."

Last December, the council's initial reaction was to welcome the grant it received from Government as "neutral." Six weeks later, Suffolk announced a staggering 18.5% rise in tax, nearly seven times the rate of inflation.

Much of the increase has been blamed on the decision to divert cash support from councils in the south and east and give it those in the north of England. Says Mike More: "We used the period before the announcement to lobby the government so that it understood that if some of the changes of redistribution to northern authorities happened, they would have a very significant and adverse impact on shire counties like Suffolk and Essex. Unfortunately, that came to pass.

"Yes we had the highest increase in tax of the six shires in the east of England, but only a couple of points above Hertfordshire and a couple of per cent above Essex and Norfolk – all counties of whatever political persuasion were in the same ball park."

As the head of the paid staff of Suffolk county council – 24,000 employees – the chief executive is responsible for carrying out the wishes of the elected Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians who run county hall. So what is being done, at officer level and politically, to prevent another 18.5% next year? "All councillors will be very mindful of the impact such a rise has on the low paid, and especially those on relatively fixed incomes like pensioners. Councillors recognise that it was a very high tax rise and this year and want more efficiency savings this year. An all-party group has been looking at ways to save money on procurement. And we are looking in detail at our base budget.

"Members of the public do not understand local government finance – and that is not a criticism. The public assumes that if council tax has gone up 18.5%, council spending has gone up 18.5%. It hasn't and that is a fundamental problem in the system."

If council tax next April was only to go up by the rate of inflation, around 3%, what impact would that have on services? "Significant.

"Of the 18.5% rise this year, around 15% was simply to finance a standstill budget, to maintain the level of services taking into account inflation, and any growth in pupil numbers at schools, an increase in the number of children in social care, the growing numbers of elderly people. Four-fifths or more of the council tax increase was simply to preserve a standstill.

"At a recent meeting of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, some members said the county should behave like a household – limiting its budget increase to inflation only. Others said the council should be like a business – only increase expenditure to the extent that people can afford to pay for it.

"There is a problem. We have to run public services like a business, but if there is a growth in the number of school pupils, we have to finance them.

"The Government grant increase this year may have been above inflation but its requirement of what we had to spend it on – such as schools – was much, much higher."

It was perhaps unfortunate timing that a few weeks before raising tax, the county council announced it had bought the half-completed redundant headquarters of TXU Energy to turn into the new county hall for around £18million.

"We have received perhaps a couple of handfuls of protest letters, many from pensioners, who have made the link between the rise in tax and the multi-million pound headquarters move.

"The truth is the new building will save us money," says Mr More, who points out that the cost is being met out of capital finance and not by council tax payer.

"In the existing complex, there are nine separate buildings, some built more than 100 years ago, a lot of window space and external facing walls, all of which are expensive to maintain in terms of fabric, heating and lighting.

"All councillors of all parties supported the move because the current complex is expensive to run and the new buildings will be cheaper and will pay for themselves over the years."

SUFFOLK county council became mired in controversy earlier this month was it was revealed it was paying a private company £25,000 to publicise the Sunday opening of libraries, rather that using its own communications staff.

"The Government told us we had to open our libraries on Sundays, at a cost of £300,000 but it has not provided us with any extra money to do so," says the Chief Executive.

"Suffolk libraries have by and large have kept up their usage more than many others in England. But we are just beginning to see a decline, and what is worrying is the lack of take up by younger people.

"Suffolk politicians made a deliberate decision that as the council is required to open on Sundays, we should to create a library `experience' to bring through the doors the people on whom the libraries will depend in future."

Given that money is so tight, was it right to go outside the council and hire public relations staff to promote this opening at a cost of £25,000? "I can't believe that every large organisation would take the view that in order to do anything, it has to always do it itself. That's a more costly expensive way to do things – I don't believe, for instance, that the East Anglian Daily Times, has its own paid staff to do all the services that it requires.

"On the library opening publicity, the particular skills we required were radio marketing – we don't pay people here to be experts in some form or radio marketing, that would be expensive and wasteful.

"We take the view we will use our own people when it is most cost effective, but we will employ some outside companies on short-term signing for their specific skills.

"A simple notice outside a library saying it will be open on Sunday would not have sufficed. There have been some library services in other parts of the country that went through a minimalist approach to Sunday opening – they were paying staff and for the building's heat and light, and very few members of the public turned up.

"It takes a bit of punch to get the message across that the library is open."

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