'Council funding changes being rushed through'

AT a time of massive policy change and budget slashing, you would think that local councils, as the ones at the sharp end of all of this, would at least be given adequate notice of exactly what we’re being asked to deliver on behalf of the Coalition Govern

In outline, we know we’re being asked to ensure the uninterrupted delivery of major public services with vastly reduced numbers of staff. We must protect the most vulnerable people in our communities with less and less resource. We must somehow seek to maintain investment in economic regeneration initiatives, investment in our road systems, in our schools, in our community buildings and in our housing stock, and do so at a time of severe economic hardship.

Beyond all of this, we are being asked to implement cuts to Council Tax Support which will leave working-age claimants in a place like Rotherham with 20 per cent less than before, to oversee the implementation of the Government’s Benefits Cap and to pick up the pieces after the Government abolishes the Social Fund and passes the job to councils with a 30 per cent cut in funding.

And now we find that the Chancellor’s autumn statement should be renamed the Winter Statement, as we now expect it to be delivered on December 5! We can only hope that provisional figures for local government funding are made available as soon as possible after that. With councils struggling to make sense of all these changes and funding cuts, there’s going to be precious little time in which to set the most challenging budgets that local government has ever seen.

You wouldn’t run a business like this. Or, if you did, you’d soon find yourself in a mountain of trouble.

Councils have to plan the delivery of over 700 services, provided by a range of partners across the public, private and voluntary sectors. The Coalition Government’s policy changes and plethora of consultation exercises mean that huge swings in council funding are likely to occur very late in the day. We won’t get final grant figures until January and, to meet statutory deadlines and ensure service delivery, councils will need to be finalising their spending plans in February. Furthermore, given the scale of cuts and service change, councils will need to find time in all of this to consult with their customers and tax payers about what services should look like — and what services will have to stop.

This Government is rushing change through and, in doing so, puts us all at risk of legal challenge. I can see that if we’re not very careful, the only people who will stand to benefit from political change and welfare reform will be the lawyers. It certainly isn’t going to be the people who we serve.

I wrote an open letter recently on the back of inaccurate figures published by the Coalition Government regarding Council Tax Support changes in Rotherham. Using figures that mislead and hide the problem that people in Rotherham and similar places will face through loss of support is, at best, unhelpful.

I called for an open and honest debate about how we tackle these issues together, but I’m beginning to seriously doubt that this Coalition Government wants this.

Nevertheless, I repeat my call for a proper discussion of these issues, and for a joint effort to help people understand why welfare reform means cuts to the money in people’s pockets. And to this call, I now add a further request: for greater clarity at an earlier date about what the Coalition Government is asking us to do and how much less money we’ll have to do it. I call for fair treatment of all councils.

Give us a Fair Deal for Councils.

Cllr Roger Stone OBE, Leader of the Council

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