Somerset Council workers through their Trades Unions UNISON and UNITE led the way at this weeks Unitary Council meeting which prepared the ground for potentially massive cutbacks to avoid a Section 114 bankruptcy notice in the New Year. In response the councils Finance supremo Cllr Liz Leyshon said they were ‘committed to working with the unions’ but the problem was caused by the reduction in Government support, noticeably the cut from £80m to £8m in revenue support grant, the fact that Councils had to rely largely on its Council Tax , which the previous Tory administration had failed to raise adequately to build up reserves and the massive expectation on local councils to fund the social care system which she described as ‘completely broke’.
Union members demonstrated outside the Council meeting held at Canalside Bridgwater on 20th December and several had submitted questions. UNISON Branch secretary Alison Hann spoke at the meeting and said “The financial emergency is terrible news for council workers as well as everyone who lives here. Local people didn’t cause this crisis, but they’re the ones likely to feel it’s pinch. Across Somerset, communities depend on the many services the council provides and the scale of the council’s financial shortfall is so great that multiple services could well be cut. UNISON will do all it can to save services in Somerset. Today’s lobby is just the start.”
Cllr Brian Smedley (Labour, Bridgwater South) who joined the demo said “The staff are feeling very anxious just now. They want to know their future and they are not at all happy about the possibility of being cast aside after giving years of service. They need to understand the process and if there are any alternatives. They want to be listened to, via their Unions. They’ve had that assurance but I suspect it won’t stave off the cuts.”
Cllr Liz Leyshon (Lib Dem, Finance Exec member) explained at the meeting that they were looking at every option to avoid decisions being taken out of their hands and put into the hands of Commissioners, which would basically be ‘glorified consultants’ with local elected members having no further say. They were looking at reducing the budget and therefore the spending until their projected expenditure no longer outstripped their income, they were looking at a process of ‘capitalisation’ which means getting capital into the organisation mainly by selling assets and they were looking at raising council tax to the maximum. Cllr Leyshon also pointed out that Somerset’s council tax base was very low compared to other councils in this position.
Lib Dems Not Blameless
Cllr Smedley continued “I do have sympathy for the Lib Dem authority because this is mainly a crisis left to them by the Tories. However, they’re not blameless because the masive cuts to Local Government funding were started when they were actually in coalition with the Tories. It’s also a major issue that the Council went down the Unitary route at this particular moment in time. A ridiculously large county and too much responsibility but with no resources left to carry them out. Also ridiculous is the fact that the better organised District Councils were suddenly turned into cash cows for the new authority as they were being disbanded and especially after they’d responded to Government withdrawal of Grant by investing in property to generate income. So much of that will have to now be disposed of in the capitalisation process and loyal staff will be shaking their heads at the wanton destruction of this white elephant unitary project and its timing.”
“But there are solutions.” Cllr Smedley added “ One key one is putting pressure on the Government by working with the increasing number of other Councils facing this position. This Tory Government that has left them in the mess might just throw a fair wedge of cash down to them, but if they don’t then the incoming Labour Government will need to have a solution which looks at a National Social Care system and proper settlements in funding for local government. Most importantly they need to get a move on with Devolution – and this IS something in their power. The larger towns are asking for services and assets to be devolved to them so that they can make sure these key community outcomes keep getting delivered – that parks are kept open, streets are still cleaned and so on. That will very likely mean a one off rise in precept across the county but thereafter we should be in a better position.”
The council debated the Lib Dems proposed route forward with both Labour and Tories abstaining on the motion and Greens and Independents split. Green Party Leader Cllr Martin Dimery (Frome West) said “I was not happy voting for the likelihood of cuts to services, but it’s the only choice we have other than bankruptcy. It’s like Field Marshall Rommel’s choice. You can either accept probable execution or quietly go off into the woods and do the honorable thing.”
Labour group leader Cllr Leigh Redman (Bridgwater North & Central) also tabled a motion calling on the council to better scrutinise the council tax collection as some £12million remained uncollected, which amounted to some 3%.