Annual Report to Buckden Parish Assembly,
April 23rd 2019
A report on Cambridgeshire County Council from Cllr Peter Downes
Full details of the County Council structure, committees and meetings with reports can be seen on-line at www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk. Full Council meetings are web-cast.
- The political balance of the Council
The political composition of the Council is currently: 36 Conservatives, 14 Liberal Democrats, 7 Labour, 2 St. Neots Independents, 1 Independent, 1 vacancy making 61 councillors in total. In 2017 the Council increased its decision-making committees from 5 to 7, each comprising 10 members, with a majority of Conservatives on each committee and every Committee chaired by a Conservative. The committees are:
Adults, Children and Young People, Commercial and Investment, Communities and Partnerships, Economy and Environment, Health, Highways and Community Infrastructure
The overall political and financial direction of the Council is in the hands of the General Purposes Committee comprising 15 members. This is chaired by the Leader of the Council who is also the Leader of the Conservative Group. All the committees are chaired and vice-chaired by Conservatives except Audit and Accounts which is chaired by Cllr Shellens (Lib. Dem.).
- Councillor allowances
The allowance structure remains as last year i.e. all the committee Special Responsibility Allowances, except one, are taken by the ruling group. This year, to save money, the ruling group decided to require employees above a basic pay grade to take 3 days unpaid leave over Christmas, thus cutting their remuneration by 1.2%. The Conservatives decided to take the same cut from their allowances. The Labour and Lib Dem members also took a cut but gave their cut to the Unison hardship fund to help out any employee adversely affected by the CCC decision.
- Council officers
The Chief Executive, Gillian Beasley, is shared with Peterborough as part of the policy of reducing back office costs and several other senior posts are also shared with Peterborough. This trend of joint appointments has continued. This reduces staffing costs but runs the risk of overloading senior officers at a time of increasing service pressure.
- What the Council provides
Social services to children and young people, older people, people with mental health problems, physical and learning disabilities; Planning of school places and some support for schools (although the funding for day-today running comes from central government); Coordinated Early Years provision, nurseries etc.; Libraries; road maintenance; road safety measures; Overall transport strategy; Growth and wider development issues; Trading standards; waste disposal and recycling centres. The full details used to be found in the Council Tax booklet delivered to all residents but this too has been slimmed down to save money.
- The key issue faced by Cambridgeshire County Council: reduced funding
Central government has continued to reduce its revenue grant to local authorities. As far as Cambridgeshire is concerned, that is from £86 million in 2013-14 to nil in 2019-20. Councils have little flexibility to increase tax levels (see below, para. 6). The demand for services is increasing as the elderly population and the under-fives increase and services are costing more. I have kept the Parish Council regularly informed about this and produced summaries of the main issues.
- Council Tax
For several years the government has capped the levels by which local councils can increase tax. Until last year,. Cambridgeshire CC decided to implement the 2% social care increase but decided on no increase in the basic council tax.
However, for the coming year 2019-20, the Council has voted for the 2% increase for adult social care plus 2.99% which can be used for other services. The cost to a Band D household of every 1% increase is 23p per week. The 4.99% increase will cost £1.15 per week. Over 60% of households in Cambridgeshire are in the lower bands A-C. The Council’s Chief Finance Officer has informed councillors that the savings needed over the next five years amount to £69 million (in a gross budget of £573 million).
Unfortunately, there was an error on the recently-published council tax bills. The County Council general purposes element is stated as having increased by 3.2%. After a flurry of e-mails with CCC and HDC, it has now been acknowledged that this was a presentational error and not a covert increase i.e. the actual increase when you put together the adult social care and general services increase is as agreed by full Council in February, i.e. 4.99%.
7. Services for older people
More and more people are living longer and, in the main, healthier lives. When they do become dependent, the cost to the Council is very considerable. The Council’s aim is to enable more people to live longer at home and be supported there, rather than going into sheltered accommodation. The policy of ‘Transformation’ is based on a significant reduction in personnel together with higher expectations on the voluntary sector and an assumption of a willingness on the part of beneficiaries to accept new ways of being supported.
All Cambridgeshire secondary schools are now ‘academies’ which means that the Council has no jurisdiction over them. The proportion of Cambridgeshire secondary school pupils attending schools rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ has increased since last year. National research findings confirm that becoming an academy does not of itself raise standards. Only a small minority of primaries in Cambridgeshire have become academies. Most of these are part of a larger chain, a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) and this is the case for Buckden C .of E. primary school.
I detect signs of more and more academies being willing to work together in spite of being technically outside Local Authority oversight. I welcome this trend. Our publicly funded school system should work for the benefit of all pupils, whatever school they belong to.
The serious problem faced by all schools, of whatever background, is a shortage of money. Although the government claims to be providing more money than ever, it is insufficient to meet the rising costs (more pupils, more with special needs, higher staffing costs).
9. Buckden specifically
I attend monthly Parish Council meetings where I present a written report on current issues and listen to the reaction of the Parish Council. I liaise with the Parish Clerk and Chairman between meetings as required.
- Most of my local work on a day-to-day basis is in responding to requests for information from residents, dealing as far as possible with their complaints. The complaints have become more numerous and more strident over the last two years.
- The majority of grumbles relate to roads – congestion, pot-holes, road works, traffic controls, misleading road signs, worn-out markings, road capacity where there are new housing developments, cycle paths
- Combined Authority
Since May 2017 there has been a ‘Combined Authority’ for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough with James Palmer (Con.) as Mayor. The combined authority comprises Peterborough City Council (a unitary authority), the district councils of Huntingdonshire, Fenland, East Cambs, South Cambs and Cambridge City, and the County Council. The Mayor has a Cabinet comprising the Council Leaders from all the constituent councils, i.e. five Conservatives, one Lib Dem and one Labour, and there is also a scrutiny panel.
The Mayor has been focusing on getting grants particularly for transport improvement. The government has also allocated the CA money towards housing developments. The original ‘Devolution Deal’ provides an extra £20 million per year for the next 30 years and this is to be used for a wide range of infrastructure projects across the combined areas. Most of the approved projects so far are in the area of the Combined Authority where the Mayor lives. He is now minded to procure a feasibility study for Third River Crossing for Huntingdon. This would be from the Wyton/Houghton area across the Great Ouse Valley to join the de-trunked A14. It would, he said, open up the area for commercial development and growth.
The introduction of a Combined Authority makes it unnecessary to have both County and District Councils as well and perhaps one of the layers of local government could be pruned to save costs. A motion to CCC calling for this idea to be investigated was remitted to the Mayor and has been ignored.
- The future for local government services and the implication for communities
We are approaching a cliff edge in relation to local government. There is simply not enough money in the system to enable the Council to provide the services that people have come to expect. Perhaps we have allowed a ‘dependency’ culture to develop. Changing that culture is a major challenge, not only in Cambridgeshire but more widely.
The expectation appears to be that services will be ‘transformed’ and local groups - parish councils, voluntary groups – will provide greater day-to-day support for those in the greatest need.
Peter Downes, April 2019