Councillor Duncan Kerr, Convenor of the Green Group on Shropshire Council, made this speech regarding the Shropshire Council budget.
Seems appropriate to try and lift the gloom on this day with a bit of literature, how about Dicken’s Mr Micawber.
“Annual income twenty pounds annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence, result: Happiness.
Annual income twenty pounds annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and sixpence result: Misery”.
And what misery we have. Misery that has occurred when the Conservative party has controlled both Shropshire Council and the Government. So, there is no one else to blame.
When I was last on the Council, I asked the then leader whether he regretted the earlier decisions of his party to court short term popularity by freezing Council tax. Unusually I got a one-word answer, “Yes”.
Even now when our General Fund Reserves are likely to be just £5M at the end of this year, the same as the average yearly overspend in Children’s Services, the Controlling group continues to exhibit what recent Public Interest reports have diagnosed as “optimism bias”.
But the cracks are very evident. If we have such confidence in our leadership and staff why have we suddenly decided we need to spend £3M we haven’t got on Consultants? (and did I miss that section of the budget consultation?)
The previous strategy seemed to be to hope that the grey clouds would suddenly disappear and Sunak’s cavalry will come over the sunlit uplands to fill the begging bowl of Shropshire with fruit from the magic money tree. The results of the bids for a better bus service or Levelling Up fund (outside Shrewsbury) show us that this isn’t happening.
Governments, of all persuasions, back winners and we are clearly not winning on transforming public transport, active travel, climate change or much else. Indeed, the latest dire news is that Arriva is closing its depot in Oswestry citing the appallingly low level of subsidy from SUC (just 40% of the Commercial fare as opposed to the norm of 60 to 80%). Maybe the Government’s assessment is that their money is safer with other Councils.
The recent peer review got it right, our financial position is perilous, and no amount of bluster and optimism can avoid the harsh consequences of this.
How did we get here?
Well, sacrificing the Councils reputation for financial prudence to short term popularity of Council tax freeze didn’t help.
But we compounded our problems, instead of fixing the roof in the good times, by investing in Prevention and Early Help in Children Services, we did exactly the opposite and cut these budgets.
Now we are faced with the double whammy of trying to fund the new Stepping Stones project to turn around the dramatic increase in Children services costs whilst at the same time trying to rebuild balances.
And the optimism bias has already led us down blind alleys like the IP+E company that was going to save the Council millions, and more recently the speculative acquisition of shopping centres.
And let’s slay another myth, that somehow Shropshire is much worse off than other authorities in the costs of social care. The reality is that data shows we used to be spend a much lower percentage of our budget on these services compared to similar authorities. The data shows that now we are average not high.
In this year’s budget round the new leadership which has certainly seen a different language, inviting Opposition groups to put forward budget proposals. There were many practical problems with implementing this, but I believe that the process was a genuine attempt to harness the talents across this chamber and to that extent I welcomed it.
To my knowledge no one has doubted that the proposals put forward by the Green group were robust and deliverable. They included proposals to tackle the disgrace of running a Council that produces more household waste per head of population than any other Council in the country bar one and funding for buses: maybe even taking a leaf out of Oswestry Town Council’s approach and making some free routes, by resolving some clear and obvious inequities in our car parking charges. They were other proposals around insulating our housing stick and addressing domestic abuse.
These have all been kicked into the long grass. The suggestion of a Waste Minimisation Strategy has already been there for 2 years since we alerted Council to this desperate situation. Maybe an archaeological dig could uncover and resuscitate the last Waste Minimisation Strategy that expired in 2016 (when it didn’t believe in climate change). This and our other proposals would save millions. But no it will sit waiting for a review by staff we haven’t got, until the leader then decides to spend more money on Consultants to tell us what we already know. As the old saying goes a consultant is someone who says “Give me your watch and I’ll tell you the time”. In our case a very expensive watch it seems.
The Council needs it make up it is facing an existential threat. We must not repeat the problems and fate of Northamptonshire County Council where optimism bias and complacency led to disaster. The laptop mouse of the Section 151 Officer has never been closer to the issuing of a section 114 notice the consequences of which will be catastrophic for the poorest members of our community who need our services most.
The problems are clearly systematic. It results from our decisions about how we run the Council. Having an Executive of just a few chosen Councillors has not harnessed the expertise in this room. It is strange when the Council is facing huge rise in expenditure on Social services no attempt is made to engage Councillors with professional and managerial experience as Social workers. We will never solve these problems if we see all issues through the party lens.
New times call for a new approach, everyione seems agreed that scurinty doesn’t work in this authority. No-one would run an organisation by excluding 90% of the board from the real decisions, but that this just what the cabinet system does. We are a rowing boat with 8 rowers 66 passengers.
It’s time to unlock the potential of all our Councillors and move to a modern committee system so we get everyone have a wider caucus of councillors who have the time and support to really get to understand the drivers of costs in key services such as children, adults and highways.
Whilst Shropshire is failing to focus on its own survival it is oblivious to the consequences of its acts and omission on the most important issue of our, and maybe any, age, climate change. It would be ironic indeed if the Council was stopped from wasting yet more money on the NWRR road neither it, nor the world can afford, by its own mismanagement of its resources, but hey, every cloud has a silver lining.
We have a very brief opportunity to retrofit Shropshire’s poorly insulated housing stock and use this to generate green jobs and green investment into our county, but another year goes by without any significant stepping up of our programmes.
This will be a year that everyone in Shropshire will remember, it could have been a year when we turned away from doing the working things and started to harness all the talents across this chamber to invest in a proper future for residents. It seems that this will have to wait for a certain event in the future when residents and business may, finally, get the budget they deserve.
In the meantime we live in a Dickensian world of misery, its pretty bad for us, it’s very worrying for our staff, it is frightening for those who depend on our services and its tragic for the young and future generations who need us to start matching our words about climate change with actions.
We will not be supporting this budget.shrop
The full council meeting was live streamed and can be viewed online here.