Happy New Year to you all. I had a great time with family and friends, over the festive season, and I hope you all did as well.
I am sat reflecting on what challenges lie ahead this year? The more I think about this the longer the list gets.
It is certainly not an easy time to be the Leader of a County Council knowing that every decision directly affects the people of Cambridgeshire especially as most decisions seem to involve spending less money.
Boiling all the issues down it seems that we have four key variables. How many services we provide, how many people we provide them to, the cost of the services and how much money we have to spend. Altering any of those variables brings a host of issues both to the individuals and politically.
Let me share some challenges, in no particular order, and certainly not a full list:
Local Politics. In may this year there are the County Council elections. All county councillors are up for election. I am expecting to see an increase in Labour councillors at the expense of the Lib Dems with the Conservatives remaining broadly where they are. Unfortunately, local politics are often decided along national lines which is a shame.
Locally, I will be making the case that Conservatives are competent, experienced and are providing strong leadership to help stimulate the local economy. If you want the A14 sorting out, Superfast broadband, the new station in Cambridge etc etc stick with the Conservatives.
Labour, whilst honourable locally, still seem to think that money trees grow and will provide cash for any spend, spend, spend schemes they can think up.
The Lib Dems, frankly, can’t be trusted. Locally, they lack costed policies, have little integrity and seem to think that claiming false credit is acceptable. Structurally, the Lib Dem rules do not allow any form of effective leadership. Group hugs, endless committee meetings and lack of personal responsibility prevent any leadership. You can’t run a £1.2 billion organisation like that.
UKIP are the new boys on the block. Largely drawn from Conservatives who are not happy with the EU. I am not happy with the EU but choose to fight that issue from within the power base of the Conservative party. A vote for UKIP might split the Conservative vote and let in Labour or the Lib Dems. Our friends in UKIP need to return to the Conservative fold and help us remove the shackles of the EU.
Local authority relationship with central government
This relationship needs sorting out. There seems to be a trend towards devaluing the work of local councillors by ministers. This seems odd given the emphasis on localism. We must resist any attempt for local government to be a delivery arm for central government. Local issues need local solutions and local accountability. Perhaps it is time for local authorities to be more locally funded.
Along with 99% of the general public ministers don’t seem to understand the differences between a county council and a district council. Our county council controls £1.2 billion and districts about £30 million, some much less. This is important to understand. If ministers want to stimulate economic growth a county council can do it, a district can’t. Yet we see not evidence that they get it.
I am working hard within the Local Government Association and the County Council Network to apply pressure to government. I am involved with helping to refocus the work of the CCN to be a more effective pressure group. This will be a challenge.
We continue to face reducing central government cash allocations coupled with unprecedented increases in demand for our services. Our county had a 12.4% increase in population over the last census period, the fastest growth in the country.
So, we have two problems. Firstly, just like all local authorities we must absorb the central government cash reductions in providing the current level of services. But, where we are different, we must also work out how we are to support the huge additional demand placed on us because of growth. The problem for us is that central government understands the first issue but not necessarily the second. This means that often policies designed to stimulate regeneration in northern cities cut across our need to sustain growth.
Council tax is set locally, to meet local demands. Central government appears to want to take this local responsibility and accountability away. We are a low tax county council but are facing a huge and increasing demand on our services. Without the correct level of funding we will have no choice but to direct our money to statutory services only and abandon supporting economic growth. This seems to be wrong at a time when the country needs growth.
This is a subject that keeps me awake at night. We have a growing number of children being born and a growing elderly population. I have already pointed out we have less money. I am determined we will protect the elderly, the young and the infirm but the question is how. I will seek to stand up for those that need us most because they need a strong voice to be heard. But this is not pretty. We may need to raise additional cash to ensure we can continue to act as the organisation of last resort.