Let's talk about... Challenges

  Posted: 03.05.21 at 10:20 by Alastair McCraw

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When people talk about challenges it’s often another word for problems. In this case, the problem of how much money Suffolk County Council has to spend and where to spend it. I promised in my Money article to return to this subject.

I described a Net Income of about £600 Million then, but the gross Expenditure Budget rises to £1,026.5M. This is mostly due some very large direct grants made to Schools, but also includes £110M in Fees and Charges. (And one of these days I must investigate exactly what those are).

SCC runs six Directorates for its services. I’ll break those down and how much goes to each of them out of what is, quite conveniently, a Billion pounds. Because of that extra schools money, £430M (or 42%) is spent in the Children and Young People directorate (CYP) and covers all stages and types of Educational and matters concerning the young.

The next largest area is devoted to Adult & Community Services (ACS use £346M or 34%). Much of this is carried out in partnership with the Health Service, the independent, voluntary, and private sectors and other local councils. The Children’s Directorate is also a regular partner. These two areas of Care have both been heavily suggested for reform over the last 20 years, but governments of both major parties have backed away from tackling the growing issues of the rising needs and peculiar organisation. This has usually been accompanied by the ‘other side’ labelling the reforms as a ‘Tax’ and scaring off any change in activity. We’ve seen, in the last year very obviously, that Adult and Child Care are intimately linked with Health Care. What affects one affects the other.

After this, the other directorates spend comparatively smaller sums. Growth, Highways & Infrastructure have a budget for 2021-22 of £72.4M (7.1%). Apart from the obvious, this covers strategic development, some planning, passenger transport, recycling and dealing with waste, and Environmental Strategy. With all that to cover, it doesn’t seem so much.
Corporate Services (CS) get £46.6M (4.5%) to carry out the background work of running a council, ranging from Human Resources, IT, and Legal and Governance work to Communications and Finance teams. Around a 5% administration cost is pretty typical for councils and that’s primarily how this should be seen.

One area that came into sharp focus at the start of 2020 was Public Health (PH), budgeted for £40.4M (3.9%). From the Victorian era onwards this has been, and can be, one of the crowning glories of local government. The Covid-19 response has further proved that across all Suffolk authorities. Local knowledge and understanding of our communities, seeking to improve health outcomes before the Health Service is needed, has been invaluable.

Fire and Public Safety (FPS) gets £29.7M (2.9%). The directorate also includes Trading Standards and helps support bodies like Citizen’s Advice (more on that another day maybe).

Finally, to finish spending the £1,000 M or so, we have a figure of £61.3M for Central Resources and Capital Financing.

All councils borrow money, sometimes moving it daily, sometimes financing over 20 to 30 years. It’s an area I’ve spent some time on through Audit Committee, which you might have guessed from these money-based articles.

Local Government Finance has become something of an interest of mine. I can’t claim complete expertise, but have worked hard to grasp its basics. (Any errors are therefore still mine). I’ve said that Councils need money to provide services. Services are what Councils are for. Local Councils deliver their services far more efficiently, at far lower cost, and with much better targeting than Central Government. To some extent, they have been forced to get smarter since 2010-11, but they have responded with imagination and effort.

One of the things that struck me forcibly over this last year is how magnificent people working in the public sector have been over this year. The Health Service, Teachers, Care Workers, the Emergency services and yes, Council employees. I have never been prouder of a response within local government. These were all people who actually delivered, repeatedly, until many were almost dropping. As well as our support and some hand claps and rainbows, they need to be recognised and repaid for their efforts. That means more money. Where is it to come from? Well, there always seems to be money available for some rather grandiose government projects that frequently come to nothing. In pure economic terms this might provide a significant economic stimulus as in the United States.

To put things simply, Westminster needs to move towards increasing funding and distribution of money to the local authorities, all of them. At the start of the Covid response, vast sums were wasted, as we saw, in the PPE scandals, in the initial central Tracking and Testing and in so many other places. Even where success has been involved, the delivery of the vaccination programme has obviously had to be carried out locally. It isn’t just me, a humble candidate and councillor, saying this. It’s reflected in everything the Local Government Association has been saying for years. This body represents all councillors, of all parties and non-parties, in England and Wales. Lest you think I’m being partisan; the Chairman has been a Conservative for as long as I’ve been elected.

If the austerity years are indeed over (I certainly would think and hope so!), then Councils across the country need to be lobbying the Government much, much harder to take a long-term approach. This is particularly true if the administrations are of the same political party. Surely, they’re in a better position to talk to them! I’ve seen it suggested that we need to Build Back Better, Stronger and Greener. If true, it’s worth remembering who, how and why we got here in the first place.

This article is one of a series available on my Facebook and Peninsula Nub News. So far, ‘Let’s Talk About’ has covered, Water, Education, Covid Testing, Money, Being Independent and this article, as well as my regular Parish Reports to Brantham Ward and numerous updates on a daily basis.

Seek and you will find.

Alastair McCraw. Independent Candidate for Peninsula Division, SCC.
07812 564188.

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