‘Lost for words’ Somerset takes drastic measures as votes to cut £28m of help for vulnerable
On Wednesday afternoon, the eightperson cabinet of Somerset county council voted through £28m of spending cuts, spread over the next two years. Over the previous six months, speculation had raged about whether Somerset would be the next Conservative-run council to join Northamptonshire in effectively going bankrupt and calling in government commissioners to sort out its mess. And here was the answer, delivered at not much more than a week’s notice: so as to avoid a final disastrous plunge into the red, the hacking-down of help for vulnerable families and children with special educational needs, youth services, road-gritting, flood prevention, and much more.
An hour before the start of the session at Shire Hall in Taunton, Somerset’s county town, around 80 people had gathered to protest, chanting a slogan apparently dreamed up by the local branch of the public sector union Unison: “Don’t let the eight decide our fate”. Among the quieter participants in the protest were women who work on the county’s Get Set programme, which helps some of the county’s most vulnerable children and families. Around 70 of them are set to lose their jobs.
For fear of reprisals, they insisted on speaking anonymously. “There’ll be no early help,” one of them told me. “Families won’t get any attention now until they’re in crisis.”
“I’m lost for words,” said one of her colleagues. “We’ve kind of been expecting this for years, but at the same time, you think: ‘Surely it won’t happen.’” They said they were expecting the fine details of the cuts’ implications in the next few days.
2018 is proving to be the year that the drastic austerity imposed on councils over the last eight years reaches a critical point. England’s Labour-run cities have made economies that stretch into the future. Back in February, Northamptonshire hit the financial wall, and issued a Section 114 notice, banning expenditure on all services outside its statutory obligations to safeguard vulnerable people. As well as Somerset, councils in Norfolk, Lancashire, and East Sussex were soon said to be in danger of going the same way.
Each of these councils has its own story, but two common threads run through them: the fact they are run by Tory administrations, and the exacerbation of their financial problems by the demands of populations spread over large areas. Somerset, which covers 1,640 sq miles, is a case in point – and like many English counties, its outward appearance belies its social realities.
Colour supplement articles might suggest the county is now the preserve of farmers and recently arrived hipsters. But its three largest towns, Taunton, Yeovil and Bridgwater, are post-industrial, hardscrabble places which have 19 council wards in the 20% of English areas classed as the most deprived, and whose social fabric has already been drastically damaged by cuts.
Inside the Shire Hall council chamber, the debate occasionally flared into anger, intensified by the fact that members of the public had been given only 48 hours to read 600 pages of documents before submitting questions. Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors repeatedly brought up the fact that between 2009 and 2016 Somerset’s ruling Conservatives had imposed a freeze on council tax, when an increase of a single percentage point would have brought in an additional £114m.
There were occasional mentions of Somerset’s recent record on children’s services and the fact that in 2013 inspectors from Ofsted gave its work the lowest rating of “inadequate”, a verdict it has been trying to address ever since.
People also talked about what was going on at the highest levels of the administration. In April, the council’s finance director departed after 31 years, and reportedly took a job at a donkey sanctuary; his temporary replacement is said to be costing the council nearly £1,000 a day.
As a matter of law, all councils have to set an annual balanced budget. In this financial year, the meeting was told, the council was facing an overspend of £11.4m. Much of this was rooted in the rising costs of children’s services, traceable in turn to a shortage of social workers, foster carers and adopters. But there were plenty of other factors at work. In the last five years, the biggest block of money Somerset receives from central government – the socalled revenue support grant – has fallen from around £90m to less than £9m. Next year, it will disappear completely. The county’s reserves are now down to a mere £7.8m.
Ten years ago, as George Osborne commenced the era of austerity, the council’s Tory leadership gave the impression that it was only too keen to help. These days, by contrast, most of the Conservatives trying to find a way through the mess have the wearied, put-upon look of people hanging on to an ethos of public service, but involved in something so difficult that it seems almost impossible. On meeting the council’s Tory leader, David Fothergill, that impression is reinforced. He said the council’s problems had affected his health, but wouldn’t be drawn on any specifics. “This isn’t why I came into politics,” he said. “We all try to make things better, but at times, it seems like we’re making things worse to try to get there.”
Up until 2009, the council was run by the Lib Dems, who also had three of Somerset’s five MPs. Now, all of the county’s parliamentary representatives are Tories, along with 35 of its 55 councillors.
In essence, this is a story about the Conservative party, and the gap between national politicians and the local councillors burdened with decisions made in Westminster and Whitehall. By way of making these tensions clear, one Somerset MP this week accused the council of being “an object lesson in waste”.
“Three or four weeks ago,” Fothergill told me, “I wrote to all of the Somerset MPs, telling them what was coming. Very little has come back. Four or five days ago, I wrote saying: ‘I really need some help – we’re getting to the sticky end of this.’ And I got no response.
“I know we’re all busy, but actually, the most important people in all this are people who live in Somerset. I will stand up for them, and make myself very unpopular, because my job is to look after them.”
Not long after that interview a statement was emailed from the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government: “Our funding settlement gave a real-terms increase in resources for local government in 2018-19. Local authorities are responsible for their own funding decisions, but over the next two years, we are providing councils with £90.7bn to help them meet the needs of their residents. We are giving them the power to retain the growth in business rates income and are working to develop a funding system for the future based on the needs of different areas.”
As Fothergill led six hours of discussion in the council chamber, his voice occasionally cracked with emotion. Early on, he announced that a £240,000 cut to help for young carers which had prompted no end of outrage would be deferred and reviewed. But everything else passed, and there was frequent talk of more cuts to come.
Leigh Redman, one of Somerset’s three Labour councillors, responded in Shire Hall’s reception area. “The leader of the council needs to stand up and start pointing the finger,” he said. “He should stand up and say to the government: ‘We’re bankrupt. You’ve put us in this position – now get us out of it.’”
Was he talking about setting an illegal budget, and thereby triggering the arrival of government commissioners? “If needs be,” he said. He then paused. “I’m waxing lyrical,” he said. He then turned and went back up the stairs to the council chamber. There were three hours and several millions pounds of cuts still to go.
‘Four or five days ago I wrote to all of the Somerset MPs saying: “I really need some help – we’re getting to the sticky end of this.” I got no response’
▼Austerity cuts to Somerset county council services are voted through, left, while protesters seethe at getting sight of papers only 48 hours earlier
▲ Residents object to services for the most vulnerable being slashed
David Fothergill Council leader