The eyes of the country were on East Sussex County Council (ESCC) this morning according to its deputy leader David Elkins.
Councillors had gathered to discuss the ‘core offer’ that has been prepared by the council’s officials this summer. The core offer outlines the minimum level of service ESCC can provide and yet still meet its statutory, or legally binding, obligations – and what it will cost to do that. The publicity surrounding the publication of the ESCC core offer last week hit the national headlines and according to Councillor Elkins it’s not just other councils that are watching ESCC but he claims the council has “caught the attention of central government.”
If implemented in its entirety the core offer would result in cuts to training for social workers and doing less preventative work, saving ESCC £854,000. Another £1.3m could be saved by doing less monitoring of school performances, the document adds.
The council also said more than £500,000 could be saved by cutting library services and £884,000 cut from the road maintenance budget.
The core offer combines those services the council must provide by law including free bus passes and adult social care, with other services the council feels it couldn’t do without. It lays out what the council cut, meaning an end to funding for meals on wheels for example, further cuts to libraries and tips, and fewer families getting early help from social services.
While this core offer would save the council £12m each year increased demand for its services and falling government grant means it needs to save £46m by 2022 so even the core offer would not be affordable.
Council leader Keith Glazier says the core offer is a way of asking residents what the council’s priorities should be and is also a political statement, aimed squarely at the government, he says the message is a simple one: “We won’t even be able to afford the bare minimum in a year or two. So either give us more money, or let us off some of our legal duties.”
But in the eyes of many councillors the core offer leaves many questions unanswered. It reveals that the council will need an additional £46m by 2022 but only identifies where £12m of that can be found without there being additional monies made available by central government.
On several occasions throughout this morning’s meeting Mr Glazier had to remind members that the core offer was not a budget proposal and therefore there was not a need for the income and expenditure to balance, and reinforced that it was a tool to be used in the council’s lobbying of central government for additional resources. It was, he said, a clear indication of, “the point which we believe we cannot go below.”
It was revealed in this morning’s meeting that more than 70 per cent of ESCC’s budget goes on ‘demand-led’ services which Mr Elkins described as services where, “people come knocking on our door asking for help and support.”
There was a clear party political divide in the council chamber. Liberal Democrat David Tutt said he found the core offer document ‘totally unacceptable’. He said he had been concerned to hear Mr Glazer saying no one was to blame for the state of the council’s finances and accused the council’s ruling Conservative group of being ‘foot-soldiers” for the Conservative government which he said had put local government finance under such pressure.
Several councillors highlighted specific concerns about areas of council activity where, if the council was forced to implement the core offer in full, they believed local people would suffer. Councillor Sarah Osbourne was concerned about schools. She claimed that many rural primary schools had only been able to survive in recent years through federating and by gaining support from ESCC, she was worried that under the terms of the core offer such council based support would disappear.
Hastings councillor Godfrey Daniel feared that if proposals were fully implemented it could lead to the council facing huge legal bills as people began to challenge cuts in services. And Mr Daniel argued that council also needed to produce a ‘domesday scenario’ that outlined where it would stand if it were not able to find the extra £33.4m it needs by the end of 2022.
“I did not come in to public service as a councillor to decimate services in our community,” Mr Daniel said and he warned of the risk of “potholes becoming canyons and special needs children being ignored”.
Another Hastings Councillor, Tania Charman, said that she was already seeing instances where social workers employed by ESCC were already under too much pressure and as a result were regularly arriving late for – or cancelling – meetings, having to continually re-prioritise and she was seeing inaccuracy creeping in to meeting papers.
“How can we retain staff as things get worse? I do not think I wold want to be working in that kind of environment,” she said.
The Liberal Democrat’s Alan Shuttleworth worried that if the council had to implement the core offer it would put children and families at greater risk as it called for a reduction in the training available to social workers in areas of preventative services, he said: “Will this lead to more children at risk, more children being taken in to care and in the long term more cost not less cost. Will the core strategy lead to more families being at risk, at greater risk of reaching a crisis point, more families at risk of domestic violence, will it lead to more family breakdowns and will t lead to more risk of mental health crisis situations?”
One of the most contentious issues of the core offer document was its assertion that assessment of a child’s special educational needs would have to be slower, Councillor Kathryn Field said the document did not define how ‘significant need’ would be assessed and who would be making those assessments and she believed that i the council followed the path set out by the core offer document it would be, “storing up problems for the future.”
She added: “If this document is intended as a scare tactic for the government then it’s working, this is very scary for a lot of people.”
ESCC Chief Executive Becky Shaw told members it was important to remember the core offer was not the budget. She told them it had been prepared carefully and potential legal issues had been taken in to account and had been carefully considered and would continue to be so. She also reminded councillors that they were not being asked to make any decisions on potential cuts set out in the core offer document and stressed that if any of the measures it highlights were brought forward they would be subject to full consultation and debate.
Rounding up the council discussion Mr Glazier said he felt the core offer was “the right thin to be doing, it sets out quite clearly what the officers feel is the most appropriate level of service that can be obtained within our current financial position and we as an executive support that.”
Members of the council’s cabinet then gave their backing to the document.