Tory county council budget agreed after opposition amendments voted down

A Conservative budget at West Sussex County Council has been signed off for 2020/21 after Lib Dem and Labour amendments were defeated.

County Hall in Chichester
County Hall in Chichester

The local authority’s share of council tax is set to rise by 3.99 per cent, the equivalent of an extra £55.17 for a Band D property.

As well as cutting millions of pounds in several areas, the county council is proposing extra spending in the areas of children’s services, adult social care and fire and rescue.

Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for finance, said: “It’s a robust budget this Conservative administration can be proud of. Despite the challenges we face it continues to deliver the services that residents expect from us.”

He added: “I’m sure there will be many potholes on the road ahead but we already have seen clear signs that we are heading in the right direction.”

He explained that despite making £18m of savings in 2020/21 they were still facing an estimated £45million funding gap over the next three years. They alongside other local authorities are awaiting the results of the Government’s fairer funding review.

Both Lib Dem and Labour budget amendments called for the reversal of a £100,000 cut to the Local Assistance Network and a £100,000 cut to the post 16 support service for young people not in education, employment or training.

The Lib Dems also proposed two extra posts to accelerate progress to tackle climate change and two additional roles to explore opportunities for improvements in sustainable travel.

Meanwhile Labour also wanted to reduce cuts to library opening hours, pilot Sunday opening hours at Crawley and Burgess Hill libraries, fund an extra post to increase participation with the home library direct and digital library plus services, reinstate the previous levels of urban grass cutting, additional resources to repair road signs and refreshing line painting, more therapist time to support children of alcohol-dependent parents, employ a climate change lead officer and fund work to boost the night-time economy in town centres.

Both defeated amendments proposed significant cuts to the county council’s communications team.

James Walsh, leader of the Lib Dem group, suggested the presentation of the Tory budgets were getting ‘rosier every year, but for the majority of residents it’s getting worse year on year’.

He suggested any Tory claim of financial prudence had a ‘hole blown right through it’, pointing to the extra money ploughed into failing children’s services and fire and rescue, the £4million settlement paid to unsuccessful highways contract bidder Amey, and the recent alleged £265,000 financial settlement paid to outgoing chief executive Nathan Elvery.

Dr Walsh criticised the state of the county’s roads with some potholes ‘as large as kitchen sinks’, described how homelessness grants were being ‘virtually abolished’ and flytipping was on the rise in West Sussex.

He said: “Residents and taxpayers are being asked to pay an ever-increasing amount of council tax for ever worsening services.”

Labour proposed to reallocate £12m currently earmarked for the A29 realignment project and spend £7m to increase the investment property fund and £5m to improve road safety and bring down the number of people killed or seriously injured in West Sussex.

Michael Jones, Labour group leader, said: “It’s virtually worst in the country for the people killed or seriously injured in West Sussex. This is an appalling figure. It’s unacceptable this council is flat lining for so long by its own admission.”

Kate O’Kelly (LDem, Midhurst) spoke in favour of extra money for more bus routes and cheaper fares, as well as more investment in dedicated cycle routes. This was backed up by Nigel Dennis (LDem, Horsham Hurst) who described how buses were ‘desperately important’ for the younger and elderly members of society.

Duncan Crow, cabinet member for fire & rescue and communities, said there was no evidence of public demand for Sunday opening hours at libraries and questioned how staff would react to being forced to work on Sundays.

The opposition parties’ plans to reduce the communications budget was criticised by Bob Lanzer, cabinet member for economy and corporate resources, who suggested a cut of that magnitude would have a significant impact.

Andrew Barrett-Miles (Con, Burgess Hill North), chairman of the environment, communities and fire committee, criticised some of the ideas contained in the amendments as ‘plucked out of the air’.

Roger Elkins, cabinet member for highways and infrastructure, said they were investing millions in road improvements, but admitted the recent weather had caused a high number of potholes to appear across the county.

Morwen Millson (LDem, Horsham Riverside) said if the Tories were going to ask the county’s MPs to lobby Government for extra funding, they should point out how much more of their budget was now being absorbed by adult social care and children’s services, with a reduced percentage spent on ‘things everybody uses’ such as highways and libraries.

Francis Oppler (LDem, Bognor Regis East) argued that the Tories had wasted millions of pounds on trying to be a commissioning council and service redesigns. He added: “Residents are fed up of the mismanagement and next year they will have the opportunity to vote on the record of the Conservative administration.”

Kirsty Lord (LDem, Hassocks and Burgess Hill South) criticised a perceived lack of energy from the Tories in the budget and asked if this was a ‘bit of a safety first’ effort to make ‘as few waves as possible’ before a May 2021 election.

But Cllr Hunt felt this was a ‘strange statement’ given the Lib Dem amendments only related to 0.1 per cent of the total revenue budget and nothing in the capital programme.

After the meeting Paul Marshall, Leader of West Sussex County Council said: “Local government has never been under more pressure financially, so I do not underestimate how important it is that we carefully consider every penny we spend.

“A great deal of work has gone into preparing this budget to not only bridge the funding gap we are facing for the coming year, but also to cover the cost of an increasing demand on our services.”