A request to further scrutinise cuts to funding for housing support services across West Sussex before they go ahead has been rejected.
West Sussex County Council has been reviewing its contracts worth a combined £6.3m with a number of organisations that were due to end in April 2019.
In mid-December the Tory led authority announced a £1.7m reduction in 2019/20 and a further £1.3m cut in 2020/21, with the remaining budget of £2.3m used to meet its statutory duties and for targeted prevention work. New contracts are set to start in September.
Amongst other changes the Tory-led county council also agreed to reduce its Local Assistance Network (LAN) budget from £807,000 to £200,000 a year alongside a remodelling of the existing service.
After the decisions a group of Lib Dem, Labour and Tory councillors attempted to call-in the decision so it could be scrutinised further, as they claimed the recommendations from the Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee (HASC) in early December had been ‘largely ignored’ by the cabinet member decision.
They suggested the decision made ‘a mockery of the scrutiny process, and will be viewed with incredulity by all our witnesses and by the public’.
‘HASC has scrutinised decisions twice already’
But a spokesman for the county council explained that both decisions had been subject to HASC scrutiny twice, with both decision reports making reference to the committee’s recommendations.
They added: “There is no new information that was not presented to the HASC on 12 December that could be subject to further scrutiny.
“HASC agreed to continue to monitor the implementation process for these decisions ahead of 31 October, 2019, when current contact extensions will come to an end.”
James Walsh, Liberal Democrat group leader at WSCC, said: “This rejection by the Tory majority of a further examination of the proposed phasing out of all WSCC support for the homeless over the next two years is disgraceful.
“At a time when homelessness and street sleeping is increasing rapidly due to austerity and benefit cuts to the poorest in society, we should be heeding stated government policy to be aiming to halve the numbers, and not doing their best to worsen the problem.
“All the evidence heard from police, probation service, the NHS, the homeless charities such as Stonepillow, Turning Tides, YMCA and from the leaders of all the district and borough councils in West Sussex emphasised the likely increased costs to the public purse of these cuts.
“It is even worse coming at the time of year when church leaders ask us to support the homeless not just with warm words, but with supportive action.”
Call-in rejection ‘will increase public anger’
Kate O’Kelly, a Lib Dem county councillor for Midhurst who led the call-in request, added; “This rejection of the call-in request makes a mockery of the scrutiny process, and will increase public anger about the cuts, and decrease the electorate’s confidence in the democratic process. It is a dangerous decision, which will cost lives, and will also cost the taxpayer more, not less, in the long run.”
The decision notice agreed by Amanda Jupp, cabinet member for adults and health, said: “Additional assurance on the implementation period and impact mitigation will be provided through a continuous review process with providers and partners between January and September 2019 to ensure that the revised contracts are deliverable and the impact of these changes are minimised.”
It described how the council would work closely with partners, providers and stakeholders to remodel the service offer in line with statutory responsibilities, revised service priorities and the financial envelope.
The authority would also collaborate with district and borough councils to facilitate a county-wide homelessness reduction strategy so funding streams available from central Government can be sourced.
Council ‘has looked elsewhere’ for savings already
West Sussex has been funding housing related support out of its core budget since 2011, when the government’s Supporting People grant was cut.
Last month council leader Louise Goldsmith said: “There are parts that we don’t have to fund and that’s what we’ll be looking at, but there are a lot of old contracts currently within that supported housing which are really not fit for purpose.
“So it’s absolutely right that we go through this process.”
She added: “This is probably one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made, but the financial situation is also equally hard.”
One question which has been repeated over and over by the public and some councillors, is ‘why can’t they look elsewhere for savings?’
Mrs Goldsmith said: “We have looked elsewhere.
“I think we’re a very lean organisation and we’re in an OK position compared to many other councils.
“There wasn’t an awful lot of room when you’ve taken £200m out of the organisation. Where do you look?
“We have taken decisions and we’re late looking at the supported housing. Other councils have said to me ‘we did that three to five years ago’.
“In my heart of hearts I’d hoped we would have been able to keep it.
“But because it’s not our main statutory duty, then we have to look at everything.
“We’re in a no stone unturned situation and we will continue with that because we’ve got a lot more savings to make.”