A ‘HARD battle’ lies ahead was the message as councillors discussed wide-ranging cuts across West Sussex at full county council earlier this month.
Cutbacks of £141m need to be made in the next four years by the Conservatives – with the council’s new ‘savings plan’ laying out plans to cut £61.7m in the next two years.
A statement from West Sussex County Council (WSCC) blamed the need for the cuts on ‘the scaling back of financial support from government’ as it looked to tackle the national deficit.
Although the council has said the savings plan works out as cutting ‘roughly £174 for every single resident, from newborn babies to working age adults, pensioners and everybody in between’, it is the social care budget that looks set to be the hardest hit.
Out of the £61.7m planned to be slashed off the budget by the end of the 2015/16 financial year, an eye-watering £32m will be taken from the adult health and social care account – despite assertions from the cabinet this will not affect frontline services.
This comes on top of £79m of cuts made by the county council in the past three years.
On December 13, council leader Louise Goldsmith said: “Today, I stand before this council having just come to the end of that savings programme and the council is leaner and more responsible and through that we’ve not increased our council tax. But we can’t stop there.”
She added the council stood in an ‘extremely strong financial position’.
“We did it three years ago and we will do it again and to quote a certain lady, ‘There’s no alternative’.”
She added the cuts were a necessity because of ‘13 years of Labour’s disastrous management’, as she laid out the proposed savings plan.
“£141m over four years is going to be a hard battle, but as you can see from these savings, we’re well on our way.”
The county council has launched a consultation into its savings plan for the next two years.
A county council spokesman said: “Residents, local organisations and businesses are being invited to give their views on these proposals ahead of the final decisions being made in February.”
The consultation, called Money matters…have your say, is now open until January 19, 2014, and available for people to complete online at www.westsussex.gov.uk/your_council/have_your_say/money_mattershave_your_say.aspx
Copies are also available at libraries across West Sussex.
Cllr Goldsmith has emphasised ‘these are just proposals at this stage. No final decisions have been taken, and will not be until the budget meeting in February’.
She added: “These proposals are far from being just about cutting services, and very much about a county council that will again be looking at new ways of working and delivering services.”
Nevertheless, the council faces a backlash from campaigners and opposition parties, many of whom were vocal in their disgust at the proposals.
The cuts debate lasted around two hours, with councillors grilling cabinet members on their portfolios and proposed cuts.
However, many councillors slammed the ‘lack of clarity’ in the proposals, which they said made it impossible to make any sort of judgement without knowing specific details.
What the members said
- Labour councillor Sue Mullins was incandescent with fury at the savings plan: “Do you think this is a fit Christmas present for the residents of West Sussex?”
- Labour councillor Michael Jones described the savings as ‘cut-throat’ and criticised Cllr Goldsmith: “Why won’t she stand up for West Sussex and why’s she showing all the fairness and compassion of Madame Guillotine?” His comment was widely condemned by the chamber and he withdrew it, saying he had not meant to cause offence.
- Lib Dem councillor James Walsh said there was ‘huge concern’ about the scale of cuts proposed, adding it was wrong to say some of the savings would have no impact: “To dismiss those and say there’s been no cut in frontline service is complete nonsense and completely out of touch with the reality of what people are facing in West Sussex.”
- Labour councillor Brenda Smith criticised the lack of detail from the figures: “I cannot use the euphemism of savings to the most vulnerable in our society and there is no detail here.
“The lack of clarity, the lack of information that’s been put before members in regard to the schedule is one that we’re struggling to come to terms with.
“When as members will we be able to debate fully the consequences and the actual figures we’re looking at in the areas that concern us for residents and when will we have that opportunity to put our views forward?”
- Cllr Walsh agreed the numbers required more detail about how the savings would be achieved: “I’ve seen smoke and mirrors before but I have to say that this defies belief.”
- Conservative cabinet member for health and wellbeing Christine Field said some of the changes in her portfolio showed public health coming back into local government, thanks to the Health and Social Care Act passed last year, and the new Care Bill that will come in from 2015:
“We’ve heard a lot of talk about it up until now but this where it becomes real, tangible and we will begin to see things change.”
Where the axe will fall
WEST Sussex County Council has highlighted £61.7m of cuts until the end of the 2015/16 financial year – less than half the £141m it needs to make in the next four years.
Sixty savings areas have been identified, split across the various portfolios of cabinet members as follows:
- Children – £5.58m
- Community wellbeing – £3.02m
- Corporate relations – £2.97m
- Finance – £2.18m
- Adult social care and health – £32.02m
- Highways and transport – £4.40m
- Leader – £0.26m
- Residents’ services – £4.83m
- Non-portfolio – £6.42m
The hardest-hit area is adult health and social care, but cabinet member for this area Peter Catchpole said the majority of this was not a cut, but instead a reorganisation of the way health and social care worked.
Out of the £32m, £16.5m is expected to be taken as part of the integration transformation fund – a new grant from the government as health and social care become more integrated under the local authorities.
“That money is aimed at cementing that into place,” he said.
“It isn’t a cut in that sense. It’s new money coming along to support social care, but in a new way. We’ve talked about proactive care in the health and adult social care select committee.”
Nearly £8m will also come off the health budget by shifting to ‘personalised community-based care’, reducing the length of stays in residential settings.
The question was raised of people being isolated in the community, but Cllr Catchpole said the council would do the best it could to get the right balance for community care, describing it as a ‘bit of an ongoing battle’ to get it right.
“No matter how hard people have tried, the number of people in isolation does seem to increase,” he said.
“The problem for us is where we want to engage with people and they don’t want to engage with the system.”
He said in this respect it was more for the volunteer and charity sector to get involved as well.
He added a lot of the health cuts came in the second year and would still be discussed and possibly amended.
To see a breakdown of all of the proposed savings by West Sussex County Council, visit www2.westsussex.gov.uk/ds/cttee/cc/cc131213i7ac.pdf
Campaigners criticise scheme
A ‘KIND of frustration’ was how the chairman of an anti-cuts campaign group summarised the situation.
Margaret Guest, of Don’t Cut Us Out, said more information needed to be known about the exact details of how the savings were to be achieved.
“Last time, when they found the £79m, they said they found that through 80 per cent efficiency savings and 20 per cent cuts.
“One would doubt they’re going to be able to find much more in so-called efficiencies. The main part seems to be outsourcing through privatisation or the voluntary sector.”
She said it was important West Sussex County Council was challenged about the details and people did not accept a ‘smoke screen’, saying it was ‘insulting’ that people were not being made privy to all the information.
On Friday, several councillors queried how they could debate the plans without a clearer idea of what they meant for residents.
Council leader Louise Goldsmith emphasised no decisions had yet been taken.
But Mrs Guest said: “Everyone’s putting certain figures against certain items – you must have had a method and a way of arriving at those.
“They were very specific about the kind of saving each directorate was going to have to make.
“They can’t be figures plucked out of the air.”
She said while no legal decisions would be made until the next meeting on February 14, 2014, it seemed as if some decisions had been pencilled in.
“Some ideas have got past the drawing board stage to the point where they can put pound signs against them,” she said.
She said this had been done with no consultation up to now.
Cllr Goldsmith announced a consultation on Friday, that will now last until January 19, 2014.
Mrs Guest added: “For the people that are going to be most affected, it won’t be necessarily easy to access those websites. I’m sure some people will respond but it will only be those that know about it and will have access to IT to be able to do that.”
She said there should have been a number of public meetings to discuss the cuts.
“It’s more public. How are we actually going to know how many people will respond to the website questionnaire? I guess it’s a kind of frustration and here we are again, and in a more controlling way.
“I think possibly because of the impact that there was last time with the protests and challenges, that’s probably something they would wish