Thursday, 19 January 2017

Facing the financial challenges

Back in 2010 when I first became Leader of WSCC, one of the biggest challenges was to find just under £90 million in efficiencies and savings out of our budget over four years. An eye watering amount with massive implications for council services and for our residents.

After discussions with my Cabinet we decided to set ourselves an even bigger challenge by taking the savings out over a three year period. Of course, I had sleepless nights as we had set ourselves a mighty challenge but having been Cabinet Member for Finance previously I was sure it was do-able.

There were benefits in going for three years and that has put this County Council’s finances in a better place – although this in no way has made us immune to austerity and, like everyone else, we are still struggling financially.

When the three years were up did we think it was all over? Well, no, as the government gave us a further financial challenge as they reduced our Revenue Support Grant again. This grant has continues to be cut and in 2019/20 we will lose this completely meaning our vital services have to be funded from other sources.

Looking back, if I thought the first three years were difficult they are nothing in comparison to now and, yes, I still have sleepless nights. We are a political organisation that delivers 80 per cent of public services to the resident - that is to the fore of this administration’s mind.

Roads, pavements, lighting, help for older people, help for the young - we have duties to safeguard our weak and vulnerable and care for those with learning difficulties, some very severe indeed, and support our carers too.

Through our great libraries we have lent over four million books and eBooks in the last year. Our excellent Fire and Rescue Service has dealt with two major fire incidents (along with countless others), helped with road traffic accidents and are there in an emergency as well as supporting and helping our communities every day.

These are just a few examples – but we do so much more and I am very proud of that and of all the staff who work to support and care for our residents and communities.

Of course we want to provide a good level of service to our residents but as the money from government gets less, this becomes so much harder. So, we look at different ways of working and our Children’s Early Help and Prevention programme and the changes we are piloting for adult social care will do just that. More importantly, these new ways of working will ensure we are closer linked with our communities. We are changing and adapting with the clear aim of providing a good service, which meets our many statutory duties to our residents.

In the meantime we have a big capital programme, which will invest in the future of our country. This includes money for our schools to provide much needed school places (£24 million this year), investment in our roads, and boosting our economy with projects such as the recent Novartis site purchase.

In recent years we have invested £30 million to improve the roads in the county and now we are investing £11 million in the Even Better Pavements programme over the next five years.

We work closely with all partners, sharing the work load and supporting each other to do the best for our residents. A fine example is our District Deals – the first one with Crawley was signed in December and there are more to come shortly.

We know helping communities to help themselves is a principle our communities really appreciate. We have demonstrated that commitment financially too with Operation Watershed, which is seen as a national example of best practice. We have invested £2.85 million over the last four years in this excellent initiative and we have put forward a further £500,000 in our latest proposed budget to continue this good work.

A significant amount of our budget is raised directly from the residents we represent. You, of course, expect us to spend this money wisely as if it was our own and we do our very best. After a six year freeze we raised council tax last year, 1.95% with an additional 2% announced by government to help with the pressures in adult social care. This wasn’t an easy decision and I know for some of our residents it wasn’t easy for them either.

This year we have worked hard to keep our costs down and find efficiencies in everything we do, but once again we plan to increase the council tax by 1.95% and an extra 2% for social care pressures.

When putting forward this proposal we have considered carefully our ‘What Matters to You’ survey which revealed that two thirds of residents who responded would be happy for their council tax to increase by 3.75 per cent or more

We have also taken into account that increases in council tax are now built into the government’s expectation of how services will be funded in future years.

However, we know that each time we increase council tax we ask more of you and I know that your costs are rising. Car fuel is high for example and with a low pound food prices may increase later this year.

I understand for some this increase will be unwelcome news, but we have tried to keep the increase as low as possible to help our residents as much as we can whilst balancing our need to provide vital services.

We will continue to look for efficiencies in everything we do to ensure we get the best value for money for our taxpayers.

Best wishes,

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Southern Rail – we need action now

Well 2017 is now with us and I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year. But in my heart of hearts I know that is simply not realistic when the situation with Southern Rail grinds on causing misery to commuters who face daily uncertainties about getting to work and getting home – at a reasonable time.

Whoever you are: young, old, working, retired, sick, well, I cannot think that anyone hasn’t been affected in some way by the strikes. As the Leader of West Sussex County Council - the third largest employer in the county – I have witnessed first-hand the impact the strikes have been having on staff and my fellow County Councillors. This is neither right, nor fair.

And it’s not just commuters affected, we have seen the ongoing situation directly impact on students getting to school and college and to patients attending hospital appointments.

I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling to highlight both the economic and social impact the industrial action is having on residents.

A recent study carried out by the University of Chichester found that the economic impact to date of the strikes could be as much as £300 million to the country. The findings put the impact on the economy at around £11 million for each strike day. The report calculated the total economic costs to the thousands of commuters who were delayed, have missed work or have had to stay at home.
The direct impact on commuters can be seen from the Association of British Commuters (ABC) survey 2016. The survey went live on 10 December last year and received more than 1,000 responses in just 24 hours. It asked a series of questions to establish the effect on commuters lives and wellbeing during the last six months of the Southern Rail crisis.

The findings make interesting reading and I would encourage you to have a look. Some of the key statistics show that 97.63% of respondents felt their overall travelling experience had got worse in the last six months. When looking at issues commuters faced, more than 95% of people said they had experienced cancelled trains ‘daily’ or ‘often’ and 73% said they had experienced delays to their journey.

A question asking how the poor service has impacted on work life brought some very poignant answers. Examples included tiredness and stress, considering moving house due to commute, changed job due to commute, losing out on job offers and receiving a warning for lateness or poor performance.

It was the same for a question on wellbeing and personal life. Some of the answers here included quality of life deteriorating, relationships under strain, suffering from physical health issues, financial impact and less time for family life.

When asked who is most responsible for the situation, 44% of respondents felt it laid equally between Southern Rail, the Department for Transport and the unions.

Wherever the fault may lie, it is clear the situation now feels out of control and it has certainly been going on for far too long. It’s time for all parties concerned to sit down in a room, leave egos and power struggles outside the door and sort out the issue once and for all for everyone. So that in the future residents and commuters will have a reliable, trustworthy service that they can depend on. Surely that’s not too big an ask?

Best wishes,