No other choice

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council has announced that it needs to make savings of £10.7 million in this year s budget. They have outlined critical cuts across all services, including a plan to get elderly people of out residential accommodation and back to the

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council has announced that it needs to make savings of £10.7 million in this year's budget. They have outlined critical cuts across all services, including a plan to get elderly people of out residential accommodation and back to their own homes and the Council Tax will still have to increase. A final decision will be made by the full council on February 21, but we decided to ask Keith Walters, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, to answer some questions about the decision-making process.

Q: You have consulted the public about cuts to services but how can this be a genuine choice for the people of Cambridgeshire, most of whom will not bother to respond and will think if they choose cuts there will be no increase in Council Tax?

A: There is not a choice between high tax rises and service cuts. Thanks to underfunding from central Government and their capping rules, the only choice for all of us, including the public, is how drastic a set of cuts should be implemented.

Q: You have publicly stated that you favour a five per cent rise in Council Tax next year. If the public wanted a four or six per cent rise, would it be implemented?

A: There would be no point in offering the public a choice if we had no intention of taking any notice. I believe we have a duty to indicate what part of the range of choices we favour (five per cent) rather than just offering a complete range without exposing where we stand on the matter. If the public were to vote overwhelmingly for another option, I would personally favour going for it. But it is not my individual decision; a majority of the whole council has to decide what level is finally set. I would emphasise the need for overwhelming statistics if we were to head towards the six per cent choice, given that the Government has threatened to cap councils much above five per cent.

Q: Year after year, your grant from central Government is blamed for the county council's dire financial situation. Would you accept that some of the blame is down to some poor administration on your part as has been suggested by some of your opponents?

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A: The only people suggesting financial mismanagement are the political opposition; this view is not supported by either of our last two Comprehensive Performance Assessments nor by the district auditor who looks for just that sort of problem every year. The opposition are confusing a Social Services overspend (caused by an increasing number of people qualifying for our help) with some kind of unspecified incompetence on the part of the Conservative administration.

Q: Do you see the Government's reluctance to give you the kind of grant you require as an indication of their lack of faith in your ability to manage your finances?

A: There is a reluctance on the part of the Government, but I would dispute that it is driven by lack of faith in our competence. They have regularly favoured London and Metropolitan boroughs over shire counties when it comes to financial settlements. The problem is not unique to Cambridgeshire, all shire counties are affected to a greater or lesser extent

Q: Wouldn't the £12 million you spent on consultants last year have been better spent off-setting the £9.3 million of savings that you need to make this year?

A: We did not spend £12 million on consultants last year. The real figure is nearer £5 million. Some of the money quoted as consultancy was, in fact, normal contractor support. I am always happy to defend our use of external providers to meet specialist and short-term tasks, in particular. But we should always ask, for any task, whether we need to take on more county council employees (with pension entitlements, maternity and sickness absence and potential redundancy costs) or whether it would be more cost effective in the longer term to use external providers.

Q: There is no doubt that this year's budget is going to hit some people very hard and next year will not be any easier, so how do you intend to address the problem of the continual erosion of front-line services?

A: We are investing some money this year in more spend-to-save measures than usual. Some of these will help money to go further in later years.

Q: How can you balance central Government initiatives to get people of their cars and using public transport with your own stringent cuts to public services?

A: We do not actually provide many public transport services. The money we are cutting back is on subsidies for services that are not commercially viable. As with all the other cuts, we are not making them because we think they are a good thing; just because they collectively strike us as the least painful of many alternative means of saving a given amount of money.

Q: How do you defend your cuts to youth services with a national rise in yob culture and anti-social behaviour?

A: We are trying to get a quart out of a pint pot; and sometimes we end up a bit short. We are open to suggestions of other areas where cuts might be less painful.

Q: At a time when there is a move to get people out of residential care homes and back into their own homes, how can you justify cuts to home care support?

A: We are being forced to take measures that work against not just the government's aims but also our own.

Q: Isn't it short-sighted to offer services to young people with disabilities only when the situation reaches crisis point and not through early intervention?

A: Yes, it is short-sighted, but early intervention means spending additional money in any given area. It would undoubtedly save in the longer term, but first you have to find the investment money. In an ideal world, we would always favour prevention over cure; just like in an ideal world, nobody would ever buy anything on hire purchase. However, needs must in some cases.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Has Keith Walters given adequate responses? Are you more or less confident about the forthcoming budget? We would like readers to submit questions and we will pass them on to Mr Walters and publish them in the Ely Standard. Write to: The Ely Standard (a taxing matter) 38 Market Street, Ely Cambs, CB7 4LS or email: