Cornwall Council’s Budget Scrutiny Starts

The annual budget discussions continue on the 3rd and 4th November with the various scrutiny committees trying to make sense of the detail behind the headline figures that were presented, and voted through by the Cabinet.

There is a lot of disquiet by backbench Councillors because of the bombshells that have exploded in the last few months. Would anyone have voted on the budget last year if they knew £1.3 million would be cut from public toilets, or the shock of finding a £2.5 million black hole in concessionary fares?

Headline figures are all well and good, but it is the detail behind those figures that really count. Despite requests last year, these figures and actual details was like trying to get blood out of a stone. To be honest, I don’t think they knew what would be cut, and now the cold reality has hit home.

I feel the details will be demanded before anyone will be happy to vote on the budget in January. There is also another concern of a £6m grant from the Government that would allow a zero percent rise in Council Tax, but will mean there has to be a hefty rise for the 2013/14 period. This point has a lot of people worried.

For those who are interested all the meetings on the 3rd and 4th November will be webcast. This is the first time this has happened and I welcome this.

Cabinet Budget – Today

Again I would love to say that everything changed and all services would remain the same. Sadly not. In fact my fear that the first years cuts (as I posted yesterday) would be more than 10% were almost confirmed by the Deputy Leader, Jim Currie. Jim was standing in for the Leader as he was away dealing with the flooding crisis. I have a horrible feeling that the 12.7% is going to be the bench mark.

There was a spat over who said what and when at the Scrutiny Meeting over Camelford Leisure Centre. It turns out that this was not for full funding for a year, but only £50k This is roughly 45% of the budget it takes to run it. I am sure this issue is not going away and those local Members will be lobbying for this before the 30th November.

A really interesting part in the Agenda was on page 53 of the report. This little beauty was called ‘Cornwall Sports Village’. I asked the question of what this means and is this just another name for the Cornwall Stadium. The answer was yes, this could include the stadium (although also not ruled out). So under a different title that could have been easily missed by others was the possible inclusion of a stadium that was listed in new capital funding schemes. It makes you wonder why they did not just say stadium complex, but then again that would have included the word stadium.

I also found out what the Medical Innovation Centre was for. This was to encourage key and sought after professional medical personal into Cornwall. I was told that the reason as to why the Council is doing this is because of funding and assets from the former RDA. I still wonder why the Council has to get involved with this, and not leave it to the NCH. At the end of the day if the money does not comes from within Cornwall Councils budget then, who really cares if someone else pays for it.

The budget recommendations presented today were voted and passed by the Cabinet. It will be now presented to the full Council meeting on the 30th November for the final say. It is going to be lively meeting, with the different groups and people arguing for their parties and the areas they represent.

The Cabinet Budget – The day before

The final recommendation from Cornwall Council’s Cabinet will discussed tomorrow, Wednesday, before they are presented to full Council on the 30th November. For the full Agenda and reports, click HERE. For me, during the scrutiny process there was two major redlines that I just could not support. These were Post-16 school travel subsidy and the evening bus route subsidy.  I am very pleased that both these will now not be cut. As I have posted before, I really think the reason these were not included is because of serious back-bench pressure.
Sadly on page 10-11 of the report the recommendation from the Communities OSC is for further and more in dept information on the cuts to the library service will not be accepted. I do believe this is a mistake and the information should be available to that committee and other Members. The answer in the report “additional papers will be made available to the committee to reassure members and further work will be completed by the Library Review Group prior to the implementation of this saving”.  My understanding is that this group is not looking at cutting and/or closing libraries, but better working practices that will make this service better for the 21st century. From my view this is a sensible and welcome view by this group as I am sure savings can be made by this means.
More worrying in the report is the figure of 12.7% in first year cuts to the Grants. The Council has planned for 10%, but announced at the County Council Networks last week was the figure of 12.7%. This is very worrying as this would result in a shortfall of £5.8 million of funding and would result in further cuts. This would mean those areas that were left out, would now be in the firing line. If you think these current recommendation are bad, they are nothing compared to what was considered and dismissed when this budget was being prepared. If this figure of 12.7% does materialise, then I will be really worried.
In the report are details of the Capital Program (page 13-14). In there is something that I will be asking further clarification as to understand why are we spending money on this. The project is called a ‘Medical Innovation Centre’ and this is included in the £39 million of capital spending under Economy and Regeneration. At this stage I am struggling to see why the Council is getting involved with a project like this, surely this is the domain of the NHS. I am sure as the sun comes up that I will be given the rationale as to why this is a must have for the Council. In the same document Solar Park 2 is listed in the program. That will be another £14 million to borrow.
I know it has not been an easy task to compile this budget, and I know many people are still not happy with it. For me, I am pleased that those areas I campaigned for are not included. It is still going to be a difficult budget to introduce and I am still not sure if will find overwhelming support on the 30th November.

Cornwall Council Budget Scrutiny – Day 5

Day 5 was the turn of the Corporate Resources OSC. They cover a multitude of functions including IT, Chief Exec Dept, Finance, Communications to name a few of the areas. The final day of scrutiny process ended more with a fizzle, than a bang. This was because the briefings that various officers gave were very good. No real ambiguity, simple, clear facts on staff reductions, costs and savings. It was there for all to see and examine. For me it was the best presentations of the week. Questions were asked and answers were given.
A question on software licences got raised on the likelihood of moving over to ‘open source’ software. Basically it could save Cornwall Council a lot of money from paying high prices from the likes of Microsoft and others.  I know it’s not just that simple as changing software, as the software has to be adaptable to the systems that the Council uses. The Head of IT did say there is real room for savings in this area and they were seriously looking at moving over to more open sourced software. He also mentioned that they were in negations with Microsoft on their charges and said they would not just pay what Microsoft wanted. I believe there are some real big savings to be made, especially in schools.
The question of One Stop Shops (OSS) and localism got raised. Again, they said clear savings of about £400k needed to be made. Questions were asked as to how. The officers replied that no decision had been made on if (if any) of these OSS would be closed. I feel that we will see some closed, and/or amalgamated with Libraries. It does make sense of having one Council building in a town that has a multi-use function. I just hope no town is left without these services. I guess we will have to wait and see on that one.  
I personally felt by attending and taking part in all of the scrutiny meetings that whilst I don’t agree with all the decisions and cuts, I really do understand the real pressures that Cornwall Council faces in the next few years. We are going to lose £170 million over this period. With 10%-12.7% proposed to be cut in the first year.  It’s a huge amount in any ones books and it’s not easily achieved. It would make it easier if we did get to grips with senior staff wages, consultants and procurement. Then just maybe we will make it work. I find it hard when explaining to people about the cuts and how bad they are, they they raise wages in response. I have no answer but to agree something has to be done on that front, and soon.
Now we have to see if those changes and alternatives made by the scrutiny committees make it to the final recommendations that will be present by Cabinet to full Council. If not, then I guess there is going to be a real battle on the 30th November

Cornwall Council Budget Scrutiny – Day 4

Day 4 always had the potential to be the stumbling point of the whole scrutiny process of the budget. The reason is the Communities OSC has most of the really contentious issues that face cuts. These included the fire service, swimming pools, leisure centres, libraries, One Stop Shops (OSS) and customer services.  All these areas faced cuts in their budgets and potential closures of buildings. Click HERE for the full Agenda

From the start it lived up to that potential when the localism part, which includes the OSS was pulled from this committee. The committee was told that this was now going to be scrutinised by the Corporate Resources OSC. This upset Members because for the last 18 months the Communities OSC had carried out most of the scrutiny work. When probed on who authorised this, no senior Officer, or Cabinet Member was able to say who. Just the line of “it was discussed at a previous meeting” When press further the reaction was more akin to everyone look down at their shoes.
First up to be discussed was the fire service. Great pains were made that there would be no cut to frontline fire fighters, and all cuts would come at what was said to be ‘back office staff and civilianise specific uniformed managers. It was mentioned that the Camborne fire station could be combined with the Redruth in a new station that would cover both areas better. No formal decision was made and it was unlikely to be made before 2013/14. It was also mentioned that there is a possibility that Cornwall’s fire service could find itself merged with other fire services. I asked for more clarification on this matter and was told this would mostly be in the area of HQ and other administrative areas. Again, no final decision has been made, but it was a possibility in the future.
On the leisure centre front another ‘rabbit out of the hat’ moment happened. The Portfolio Holder made a statement that the Camelford Sports Centre was going to be reviewed again. In other words it has had a stay of execution until other avenues have been fully explored with the groups involved in that centre. This decision was made seconds before the start of the meeting by the Portfolio Holder and Leader of the Council. The other centres that the Council owns are most likely going to end up in trust status. I do believe this is the right direction to take and will safeguard their long term future. All that needs to be worked out it what ‘model’ of trust is used. I got the feeling that an ‘in-house’ option was the likely outcome. Yet again, no formal decision has been taken.
The most explosive issue on the whole day was on the issue of libraries. It has been no secret that some could close. The proposal was for a £250k saving in 2011-12 and a further £475k 2012-13. No getting away from it that this meant closures and combining others with the OSS. The problem, which the committee pointed out repeatedly, was that there were no details as to how this was going to be implemented. I have to say a lot ‘key words’ and other council speak was used, but no detail on where and who would be effected. This really annoyed a lot of the committee. They felt how you can scrutinise something to make sure it is right, when you are not given the details. I come to the conclusion that they don’t know, or are too scared to tell because of the backlash to closing them. I feel that it’s the later which is true.
The recommendations from this committee are:
  • Re-examination of proposed cuts to the library service before Council make the decision due to lack of detail from Cabinet
  • Remove the cut of 5% to the Community Safety Budget
  • Closer working with Devon and Cornwall Police
The final day is tomorrow and anything could happen between now and then.

Cornwall Council Budget Scrutiny – Day 3

Environment and Economy OSC was at the crease for day 3 of the 5 day scrutiny process. This was likely to be lively due to the number of items that were proposed for cuts.(Click here for the Agenda) The big one for me and many other Councillors was the removal of the evening and Saturday bus services along 27 routes (click here to refresh yourself on those routes). This would have a devastating impact on those areas that would suddenly post 6-7pm find they have no bus service.

The cutting of these routes was for me one of those red-line areas that I could not support and along with others had campaigned behind the scenes to stop this cut. This service cut would have a massive impact on those who I serve. At the end of the day we as Cornwall Councillors do have a strategic role to play for the whole of Cornwall, but you must never forget who elects you to that position and how you must first and foremost defend their interests. That is sometimes a hard juggling act to do without dropping the ball once or twice.

So today I was ready for the fight to protect these to routes with a series of questions and arguments to save them. Before I did get the chance to speak, the Portfolio Holder, Graeme Hicks, handed out another proposal. On this proposal it removed the cutting of these routes by ‘adjusting’ some other figures. The room was silenced. A Member said to Graeme “you certainly pulled that one out of the hat”. Indeed he had, and it is a credit to him that he did rethink his original plan.

I do think that this plan was changed because of the pressure and campaigning behind the scenes (and quite openly) by me and many other back-bench Councillors that this area was a step too far and could not go ahead. Many times people have complained (myself included) that it’s hard to change decisions by Cabinet. Today was a victory for back-bench Councillors applying pressure to the Cabinet Member for a change. Credit again should go to the Cabinet Member for listening and getting his officers to come up with a revised plan that keeps the bus routes.

Other points that were clarified today is there would be no cutting of the budget for lifeguard cover at Cornwall’s beaches. The park and ride in Truro would rise in price from £1.20 to £1.50. It was feared that this could rise to over £2, but the officers said this was not the case. Also not all recycling banks would be removed, buy only those that are not cost effective or are close to larger sites. In the report it said they would be all removed.

A note of caution, this was not a final decision on keeping the routes or the other matters. As they still has to go though the final Cabinet recommendations (which they would be now mad to change) It is then for full Council to vote yes or no on this budget. I do think if these issues stay out from being cut, then a few more Councillors might now put up their hand to support the budget. I guess for that we will have to wait till the 30th of November to see.

Cornwall Council Budget Scrutiny – Day 2

Up to bat on the second day of the scrutiny process was the Health and Adults OSC. Some may say this is the area that is most heavily cut, but I will leave that up to you to decide. The Adults side of the directorate has had a rough ride over the last few years and last year was one of the areas that had a large overspend.

The Agenda for today’s proceeding is HERE. As you can see from the report there are many areas that are facing cuts or realignment of budgets. I would like to say that the committee did in fact find other ways of saving certain areas, but sadly they could not. One reason for this is that they (the committee) were told to protect one part; they had to find the shortfall from other parts of the directorate. You could argue that before they started they had one hand tied behind their backs.

Without listing all the areas that face reductions it would be easier to click This Link and see them all listed. The two main areas that will have most impact in this directorate are the removal of the £4m uplift for the first year (increased budget) and the reduction of the Area Based Grant of around 30%, which in real terms equates to £6.35m in savings.  As I said before nothing did change save for 3 comments which were made by the committee for Cabinet to take into account before they make their final recommendations to full council. These are:

  1. Committee raised concerns over the numbers of variables in the budget and how it has been decided 
  2. Concerns about the impact of the removal of the Area Based Grant and the compounding impact on the vulnerable people and this was not clear form the original document
  3. Any extra funding especially from the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) is considered for the Health and Adult Directorate.
All 3 of these points were voted on and passed by a majority. Point 1: 11 for, 2 against. Point 2: 10 for, 3 against and Point 3 was unanimous. I am not part of this committee, so I did not have any formal vote on the proceeding.  

Cutting Bus Routes

Here is another issue that will have a greater impact on those living in rural areas. On Wednesdays scrutiny meeting one of the proposals is to withdraw the subsidy to certain evening and weekend  bus services. This includes 27 routes across Cornwall. Without the subsidy I very much doubt the bus company will continue to operate the services. (I would be willing to stand corrected by the bus company). I am not a member of this committee, but will be attending to air by 10 pence worth on why this is a huge mistake.

From my recent experience of using a bus left me shocked any further reductions would leave those not living in large towns with little or no service. Granted it can’t be cost effective for bus companies to use large double decker buses that they seem so keen on, instead of small ‘hopper’ type buses.  You have to ask yourself why don’t they invest in new stock and not use those tired looking double deckers. They charge enough to travel on a bus these days.

Anyway here is the list of the proposed subsidy route cuts.

  • 14/18 Truro – Redruth – Camborne – St Ives/Penzance
  • 2 Penzance – Helston
  • 5/6 Penzance – Gwavas/Mousehole
  • 10 Penzance – St Just
  • 17 Penzance – St Ives
  • 1 Penzance – Lands End (summer)
  • 34 Helston – Redruth
  • 540 Troon – Camborne – Illogan – Redruth
  • 27 Truro – St Austell
  • 41 Falmouth – Redruth – Camborne
  • 68 Falmouth Town services
  • 82/A Truro – Stithians – Helston
  • 85 Truro – St Agnes
  • 88 Truro – Falmouth
  • 521 St Austell – St Dennis – Newquay
  • 524 St Austell – Par – Fowey
  • 526 St Austell – Mevagissey
  • 529 St Austell – Roche – Bodmin
  • 550 Truro – Tregony – St Mawes (Sats)
  • 556 Newquay – Padstow
  • 587 Newquay – Perranporth – Truro
  • 597 Newquay – St Columb Major – Truro
  • 555 Padstow – Wadebridge – Bodmin – Bodmin Parkway
  • 576 Bude – Launceston – Callington – Plymouth
  • 79 Callington – Gunnislake – Tavistock (Fris and Sats)
  • 81 Plymouth – Torpoint – Millbrook – Cremyll573 Polperro – Looe
As I have previously said, cutting bus services is another one of the red-line areas that I will struggle to support. Special thanks should go to Alex Folkes (click for his blog) for obtaining the routes.

Cornwall Council Budget Scrutiny – Day 1

Today was the first day of Cornwall Councils budget Scrutiny by the various scrutiny committees. Children’s Schools and Families OSC was the first to examine its proposed cuts. For this directorate it is not as badly affected as other directorates, mostly because most of its budget for schools is ring-fenced (protected) and cannot be cut as it is a direct grant from Govt.

Sadly not all areas are protected. Once of these areas is the subsidy of Post-16 school travel. This for me is one of my red-lines and one that I think is a step too far in cutting. The Council wants to save £1m over two years from this service. This topic was one of the first areas to be discussed and it was discussed at length. Even the Portfolio Holder seemed reluctant that this should be included in the cuts. Many members of this committee spoke up in defence of protecting this service.

In the end a motion was made that I happily seconded that made it clear to the Cabinet this service should and must not be removed with money be taken out of other less critical areas of the CSF transport budget by means of better systems being in place to save money. So lets hope the Cabinet incorporates this into the budget before they as for the full Council to vote for it on the 30th November. If not, then there may well be a few more hands going up and voting against the budget proposals.

I asked a question that I was sent via Twitter from @savethepool and @robertrush  on the impact of a sports centre (Camelford) being closed down that provides swimming to schools. I received the answer that if the near-by pool was to close, then the school would have to fund the additional transport costs to get to another pool. It could do that out of its own budget or contributions from parents. Not greatest answer to get as school and family budgets are stretched enough already. Sadly this committee has no power to keep open a pool.