LETTER: Debate on future of vital services

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In her letter titled ‘Financial challenges ahead’ West Sussex County Council leader Louise Goldsmith states boldly ‘Council budgets are like household budgets’, ‘You can’t spend money you don’t have’.

That is what she told the vulnerable and elderly across West Sussex this time three years ago when the council was preparing to slash £79 million from public services, by closing day centres and cutting vital care support for those least able to help themselves.

And what happened in reality? This money and more was simply salted away into reserves, which have ballooned over the past three years from £108m to £216m!

If money is really so tight, why did Conservative councillors vote to award themselves a healthy increase in allowances last month?

Ms Goldsmith’s letter is both disingenuous and misleading. Her council takes a large income from residents, businesses and investments. It also has the power and flexibility to raise taxes and sell land and property. This council has not raised its household tax for four years despite inflation running at close to three per cent. Yet, just a single penny on the rates would solve the crisis in care that previous cuts have produced.

The council can and does borrow money - at very reasonable rates - when it suits, just as they plan to do so now to launch their own property development company.

Hard-pressed households have to rely on much more expensive credit to meet monthly food, fuel and energy costs, while the most vulnerable either have to go without or rely on charity food-banks - a disgrace in such a wealthy county.

There are alternatives.

Cut the expense of costly tendering and bureaucratic procurement processes in outsourcing mainstream public services, and instead maintain directly provided services, essential to the wellbeing of our more vulnerable residents.

Review the millions set aside for future projects. Are these still necessary in such ‘challenging times’?

Use some of the council’s reserves to maintain key services. These can be replenished once the economy starts to grow again.

Freeze councillors’ expenses.

Stop constant reorganisation and restructuring, which award eye watering salaries to bevies of consultants and project managers, and takes millions away from service provision.

Freeze or ask for voluntary cuts in pay to senior managers earning over £100k (the median wage fell by six per cent% 2009-2011).

Offer residents, through a local referendum, the choice of a small increase in council tax to maintain essential services.

‘Commissioning (as opposed to council directly provided services) gives the best possible outcomes’ - Another myth. We ask the council to show council taxpayers the evidence that paying private organisations to provide mainstream public services ensures high quality joined-up services that are sustainable and reduce costs in the long term.

Show us how private companies using public money are to be held accountable to taxpayers.

Show how vulnerable people using these services can be protected from abuse.

The council promises openness and transparency in its plans for ‘reducing expenditure’ – ie more cuts.

Where is the transparency in telling taxpayers how much but not where the £141m in cuts will fall?

Where is the openness in providing information only through county council committees, which few people know about or attend?

Councillors’ expertise appears to be in fixing pot holes and traffic congestion rather than maintaining essential services which impact on young children, families, the disabled and elderly.

Where is the opportunity for residents to ‘Have their Say’ when no formal consultation is planned on where these £141 million in cuts will fall? Such opportunities will be ‘hidden’ within the few weeks around Christmas and the New Year when few people have the time to respond.

And the biggest myth of all: ‘Public services in West Sussex have stayed the same or improved’.

This council has continuously failed to listen to their own consultation outcomes about closure of day centres and changes to eligibility. They have ignored the real life experiences of local disabled people, the concerns of the voluntary sector and even the findings of a local independent health and social care watchdog regarding the cuts to care and services.

They failed to accept invitations from DCUO to spend time with disabled people to better understand the challenges of disability and the impact of loss of services.

They have failed to monitor or evaluate the impact of the cuts on vulnerable people. Instead they choose to rely on a national BBC survey and make no attempt to evidence its relevance to West Sussex.

Don’t Cut Us Out calls on the council to inform West Sussex residents of their detailed proposals for the planned £141m of service cuts as a matter of urgency, and to provide real opportunities for informed evidence-based debate on the future of council services which residents, as tax-payers, fund.

MARGARET GUEST

Chairman, Don’t Cut Us Out Campaign, The Street, Walberton, Arundel