Council '˜not smug and complacent' over finances

The Tory administration at County Hall has rejected accusations of being '˜smug and complacent' over budget proposals for next year.

Jeremy Hunt, West Sussex County Council's cabinet member for finances
Jeremy Hunt, West Sussex County Council's cabinet member for finances

West Sussex County Council is facing a £95.5m budget gap over the next four years, and £22.3m alone in 2018/19, even with proposed increases in its share of council tax.

The county council has already identified £18.7m of savings next year and £17.9m for 2019/20, and these budget proposals along with the five-year capital programme were approved last Friday (December 16).

The final budget for 2018/19 is set to be agreed by councillors in February.

Jeremy Hunt (Con, Chichester North), cabinet member for finances, said they should focus on the Conservative administration’s ‘exciting plans for the future of West Sussex and all its residents’.

He added: “We are continuing a programme of efficiency savings and transformation work, not cuts.”

He described how they could not ask more money through council tax without ‘putting our own house in order first’.

Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Gossops Green) said in his view the presentation of the budget savings and capital programme was ‘somewhat smug and complacent’.

But Stephen Hillier (Con, Haywards Heath East), cabinet member for children and young people, described how they were responding pragmatically to ‘unprecedented financial pressures’.

He added: “In no way are we smug and complacent.”

Sue Mullins (Lab, Northgate and West Green), leader of the Labour group, said: “Here we are again but this time the savings and efficiencies or cuts, whatever you like to call them, are no longer invisible.

“What is proposed so far will hit hard those most in need and the least able to protect themselves.”

In particular she raised a reduction in bus subsidies and savings in highways maintenance.

Mrs Mullins added: “At what point if ever is the ruling group going to stand up to its friends in Government and say enough is enough.

“We can’t run council services in the interests of our residents at this ever-reducing level of funding.”

Meanwhile James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), leader of the Lib Dem group, added: “We have got the usual smoke and mirrors of making savings, which I will continue to call cuts because they are cuts in services, and then put some of the money back in and claim that more money is being put back into services.

“It truly is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul and then conning the public with their own money.

“How you get away with it year on year I just don’t know, but it’s an art form and you’re doing it very well.”

He described ‘worrying figures’ in the budget savings proposals, and in particular raised a review of the options for directly provided services for adults, which he argued likely meant reductions to the current level of service.

Kate O’Kelly (LDem, Midhurst) raised proposed cuts to bus subsidies, arguing many routes were a ‘lifeline’ for rural areas especially for the elderly.

She said: “Withdrawing these vital services is really not an option.”

On the Conservative side David Barling (Con, Bramber Castle) suggested many of the opposition’s statements were not based on reality, adding: “We have to live in the real world, we can’t magic up money and we have live within our means.”

Bob Lanzer (Con, Maidenbower), cabinet member for infrastructure and highways, said intervention levels for potholes and road defects would not be changed under the new highways contract, and also welcomed the spending on road projects in the capital programme.

But Steve Waight (Con, Goring) raised strong concerns about the level of borrowing required to fund the £800m capital programme and the impact debt repayments would have on council finances in the future.

A Labour amendment to pay £750,000 to schools to help partly cover the cost of the apprenticeship levy and overturn the cuts to the quantity of newspapers provided in public libraries was defeated.

Richard Burrrett (Con, Pound Hill), deputy leader and cabinet member for education and skills, explained it was with a ‘heavy heart’ they were not able to help schools pay apprenticeship levy contributions in 2018/19, as they simply could not afford to repeat what they had done in 2018/18.

He added: “We are standing firm and investing in our county, more than we have ever done in the past and I think that’s something to be very proud of.”