Council Tax freeze means revolution in Cambs service provision

COUNCIL Tax in Cambridgeshire looks set to be frozen for five years, but a revolution in the way services are delivered means people less needy will miss out on services.

The county council’s precept, which accounts for two-thirds off most Council Tax bills, will stay the same until 2016/17, if the full council agrees next month and if the ‘Pickles promise’ to subsidise zero-rate increases lasts for the full period, as senior councillors believe.

But it is the decision to slash �50million from the council’s budget in the year from April 1 and �160m over five years, as Whitehall contributions dry up, that is behind the planned revolution in services.

The idea is that county council services will cease to be universally provided, as has been the case. Instead, they will be targeted at a combination of the most needy recipients and early intervention to prevent more costly services downstream.

Although education is the county council’s biggest single-ticket item, it is not directly affected by the service revolution, except for specialist teaching, including support for one of the county’s most vulnerable groups, looked-after children.

But all other county services are, including social services, highways, subsidised bus services, school transport, trading standards, environmental management and libraries.

According to CCC: “Four principles will guide the way the council works – being a genuinely local council, making sure the right services are provided in the right way, investing in prevention, and working together.”

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What that seems to mean is a blind faith that community or individual philanthropy – the Big Society – will step in to make up for the loss of services that, while not vital, are fundamental to many people’s quality of life, particularly in an overwhelmingly rural county such as Cambridgeshire.

Councillor John Reynolds, cabinet member for resources, told The Hunts Post: “We have had pretty good indications about what our funds might be over the next five years, and we have to be sure we have a new strategy at this stage rather than salami-slicing in the hope that some money will turn up.”

The council is facing what it says is its the most difficult financial situation in its history, as it deals with the increasing pressures of demand from a growing population, an increasing and ageing population, and the cost of inflation coupled with a 14 per cent reduction in the core funding received from Government in year one of the five.

Cllr Reynolds claims the potential savings from the new philosophy are based on the experience of Cambridgeshire and other county authorities that have followed a similar path.

But he admits that, apart from a small but intensive face-to-face exercise with a ‘representative’ cross-section of 260 people, there has been no public consultation on a fundamental change of direction that was not part of anyone’s manifesto in the 2009 elections.

After proposed cuts to library services were consulted last year, the council felt obliged to backtrack on a number of savings. It may be that the administration does not want to risk a repeat of that need to reinstate.

The philosophy, which Cllr Reynolds accepts will require significant re-training of the staff who keep their jobs, means intervening sooner – for example with families to prevent the need to take children into care, or vulnerable older people to avoid the need for long-term help – and ‘re-enabling’ folk to live without council help.

It will also mean some people paying much more for social services help, if they get any, an end to subsidised local bus services, huge savings on school transport and the withdrawal of direct support to some children.

Some early capital investment in roads will be aimed at reducing the future cost of patching potholes and re-surfacing roads and pavements. But highways chief Mark Kemp still describes CCC’s new policy for the thousands of miles of county roads as “managed decline of highway condition”.

To make up for the loss of universal services “it’s a question of the public stepping up to the plate to help sort out some of these issues,” Cllr Reynolds said.

His leader, Councillor Jill Tuck, left no one in any doubt that the changes would hurt some people.

“We will be a genuinely local council,” she said. “We’ll hand decisions about spending and service provision to people at the most local level wherever possible.

“We know that a lot of people are already actively involved in their local areas, and we want to free up communities to do even more and support themselves.

“We will focus on prevention – helping people early on, increasing their independence and choice, and helping them to help themselves.

“We will make sure that every penny in every pound counts. We will protect the front line and will be as efficient behind-the-scenes as possible.”

The cabinet insists that taking the axe to many statutory services in this way is perfectly lawful. The requirement to provide them is in many cases so vague as to be virtually meaningless, Cllr Reynolds says,

<Where Cambridgeshire County Council says the axe will fall in its �352m budget>

nIn children’s services a fundamental shift from universal to targeted services is proposed, which over the next four years would save �1 million from youth services, �761,000 from home to school transport and �600,000 from children’s centres.

nDirect support to some children and young people will end, saving �1m from disability services, �527,000 from specialist teaching, �315,000 from budgets for educating looked-after children and �301,000 from the Cambridgeshire Racial Equality and Diversity Service.

nThe council aims to save �950,000 from children’s social care, �240,000 from the early-years service, and �3m from mainstream and special educational needs school transport.

In libraries, learning and culture, the council will save �282,000 through operational efficiencies, income generation and new ways of working, �108,000 from redesigning the mobile library service, and �100,000 from introducing more self-service and using volunteers in libraries.

nWorking in partnership with other councils to provide support services and creating a trust to run libraries will save a further �294,000.

nIn social care, promoting prevention and localism will save �2.9m, adopting reablement approach a further �4.75m, and decreasing the cost of high-cost and complex placements will save �1.3m.

nIn environment services, a proposed restructuring trading standards will save �641,000 over four years, reducing spending on environment and climate change �492,000, a proposed restructuring of waste services will save �159,000 and a proposed reduction in senior management will save �100,000.

nFurther efficiencies from the highways services contract will save �2.4m, and restructuring highways and access �1.1m.

nIn public transport, phasing out subsidised bus services will save �2.7m, but there will be an extra �1m invested in supporting community transport schemes over the next five years as well as a summit on how to make public transport more locally-focused and value for money. There will also be a �1.4m saving in revenue-funded highways maintenance but an extra �3.85m investment in this area from capital funds.

nIn corporate directorates, over a four-year period, reducing properties and maximizing office space in retained buildings will save over �1m, reducing the contact centre opening hours and standards and moving more services being accessed and delivered online �426,000, reducing IT functions and delivering services in different ways will save �989,000 and reducing communications and marketing activity will save up to �550,000.