East Sussex report ‘reads like an obituary for local government’

East Sussex councillors have repeated calls for long-term funding after discussing a report which warns that the authority faces a £34.4m budget gap over the next three years.

East Sussex County Council has warned of facing another budget funding gap

The report was discussed at a meeting of East Sussex County Council’s cabinet on Tuesday (July 16), during which councillors heard predictions for the council’s future finances.

It concludes that there is an “urgent need for the Government to make additional funding available for local government.”

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Conservative council leader Keith Glazier said: “I think the clear message here is that we are planning for what we know and hoping that the lobbying we are going to be putting in between now and budget day is going to be as successful as last year.

“I  understand all of the [East Sussex] MPs will be meeting with myself, the chief executive [Becky Shaw] and the minister for local government in September. 

“I guess the caveat to that is who knows who will be the minister. But I understand that it will be in the minister’s diary, so I am confident we can get in as early as possible under the new establishment to make our point and make our cases.”

Commenting on the report, the Liberal Democrat group’s finance spokesman Philip Daniel said: “Quite rightly, we refer to the chaos emerging from central government. 

“We can only hope there is some possibility that will change in a reasonable time, but it seems very unlikely as the Brexit drama continues.

“There has still been no fairer funding review, no business rates reform, no adult social care solution, no social care green paper. 

“It seems that what is said is the best we can expect is one-off support. 

“What a pass we have come to, when there is no possibility for planning reasonably for the very important services this council provides.”

In response, Cllr Glazier said he ‘shared frustrations and concerns’ about the lack of long-term funding, but added that the subject of local government finances had been raised with both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt through the Conservative party network. 

He said: “Both have given written assurance that it will be high on their agenda, whichever one of them becomes prime minister.

“All I can say is I hope they are as good as their word and we will try to hold them to account, as they hold us to account.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly however, Cllr Glazier’s comments didn’t reassure Labour group  co-leader Godfrey Daniel.

Cllr Godfrey Daniel: “It is an interesting concept, isn’t it, to imagine that the candidates for prime minister are going to be as good as their word. It has not been the case so far.

“I’m afraid the Government is clearly not focused on local government matters and this whole report reads like an obituary for local government. 

“Now I know at the end of the day it will happen and we will end up doing less and less with less and less money, but it is very sad.

“None of us came into local government to preside over these cuts and every year it is getting worse.”

Cllr Godfrey Daniel also drew attention to part of the report highlighting what the council would need to do to close the £34.4m budget gap within its medium term financial plan (MTFP).

According to the report, the council would either have to: achieve annual business rates growth of 14 per cent; see 7,997 houses built each year;  or raise council tax by an average 5.8 per cent each year.

But the council adds it is expecting a business rates to grow by less than one per cent each year; only saw around 1,100 houses built in the county in 2017/18; and is capped from raising council tax by more than 1.99 per cent.

Eastbourne Hampden Park’s Lib Dem councillor Colin Swansborough was even more forthright in his criticism, prompting a prickly reply from Cllr Glazier.

He said: “We talk a lot about lobbying and there is a lot of information about the lobbying done in this [report]. 

“I don’t doubt that a lot of hard work is going into this, but I have to say your style of lobbying is not having the effect we all want it to have. 

“I think it is because you are meekly supporting the Government’s line all the way down the line. You seem to accept it day in and day out. 

“You were very pleased last year that you balanced the budget, but that was only after you slashed tens of millions out of the budget a year ago.

“While I am at it, and I haven’t mentioned it in a little while, in the middle of all of this you increased your salary by 37 per cent.”

Responding to Cllr Swansborough, Cllr Glazier said: “You never cease to amaze me with how low you can go. I find it really, really disappointing that we finish this really important discussion on such a low ebb.

“What you have just portrayed doesn’t reflect this council. What you have just portrayed is you ability to twist and turn what we do day in and day out.

“Whether you were in this seat or whether I am in this seat, we have a difficult job to do. 

“I concentrate – day in, day out – on things that I can affect. I can’t affect the green paper. I can’t affect the spending review. I can continually give them my view, [but] it is not in my gift. 

“One day perhaps you will have a eureka moment, when you recognise that we all get up every morning to make things better for the people of East Sussex.”