‘Lost for words’ Som­er­set takes dras­tic mea­sures as votes to cut £28m of help for vul­ner­a­ble

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - John Harris

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’

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JIM WILEMAN/GUARDIAN

▼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

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