Annual Report to Buckden Parish Assembly,

May 22nd 2018

A report on Cambridgeshire County Council from Cllr Peter Downes

I report monthly to the Parish Council on developments at the County level and provide all residents with regular up-dates through the Focus leaflets. This report pulls together the trends over the last year and looks ahead to the future. As ever, I am very happy to engage constructively with any residents who would like further details or who wish to challenge the contents of this report.

Full details of the Council structure, committees and meetings with reports can be seen on-line at Full Council meetings are web-cast.

1 The political balance of the Council

After the elections in May 2017 the political composition of the Council now stands as: 36 Conservatives, 15 Liberal Democrats, 7 Labour,  2 St. Neots Independents, 1 Independent making 61 councillors in total. The Council has increased its decision-making committees from 5 to 7, each comprising 10 members, with a majority of Conservatives on each committee and every Committee chaired by a Conservative. The committees are:

Children and Young People
Commercial and Investment
Communities and Partnerships
Economy and Environment
Highways and Community Infrastructure

The overall political and financial direction of the Council is in the hands of the General Purposes Committee comprising 15 members. This is chaired by the Leader of the Council who is also the Leader of the Conservative Group.

In addition there are several more smaller committees covering, for example, Planning, Audit and Accounts, Constitution and Ethics, Pensions, Staffing Appeals. All the committees are chaired by Conservatives except Audit and Accounts which is chaired by Cllr Shellens (Lib. Dem.).

2 Councillor allowances

Whenever a new council is elected, an Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP) is formed to recommend a remuneration structure. This is only a recommendation and the County Council is not bound by it. This year the Council voted by a majority to reject the IRP’s proposals and implement their own scheme. This increased the cost of the scheme by £185,000. The basic allocation to all councillors was increased to £10,315.     

Special Responsibility Allowances (SRA) are allocated to those councillors who take on extra responsibilities.

Conservative councillors receive 23 of the SRAs amounting to £276,155 per annum; councillors from other parties receive 4 of the SRAs, amounting to £23,856. Full details can be found on the web-site.

3 Council officers

The Chief Executive, Gillian Beasley, is shared with Peterborough as part of the policy of reducing back office costs and several other senior posts are also shared with Peterborough. The trend of recent years i.e. to reduce council staff, has continued.

4 What the Council provides

Social services to children and young people, older people, people with mental health problems, physical and learning disabilities; Planning of school places and some support for schools (although the funding for day-today running comes from central government); Coordinated Early Years provision, nurseries etc.; Libraries; road maintenance; road safety measures; Overall transport strategy; Growth and wider development issues; Trading standards; waste disposal and recycling centres.                                                                                                   

The full details can be found in the Council Tax booklet delivered to all residents.

5 The key issue faced by Cambridgeshire County Council: reduced funding

This year has seen a continuation and intensification of the debate on how to continue to provide the services residents have come to expect but in a context of severe financial pressures. Central government has continued to reduce its revenue grant to local authorities; locally that is from £86 million in 2013-14 to nil by 2019-20. Councils have little flexibility to increase tax levels (see below, para. 6).  The demand for services is increasing as the elderly population and the under-fives increase and services are costing more. I have kept the Parish Council regularly informed about this and produced summaries of the main issues.

6 Council Tax

For several years the government has capped the levels by which local councils can increase tax. It was usually 2% but last year the government allowed upper tier councils with social care responsibilities to increase council tax by 2% on top of the normal 2% permitted increase. Cambridgeshire CC decided to accept the 2% social care increase but decided on no increase in the basic council tax. For the coming year 2018-19, the Council has voted for the 2% or adult social care plus 2.99% which can be used for other services.          So, for a Band D taxpaying household, the rate will go up from £1,190.43 to £1,249.83, an increase of £59.39 a year, or £1.14 a week. The majority of houses are banded at A-C so the actual increase for the majority of households will be less than that figure. The extra 2.99% yields about £7.5 million, of which £4.3 million is to be used to ay off the overspend on the 17-18 year and the remainder is to be put into reserves in anticipation of further overspends in coming years.

7 Services for older people

More and more people are living longer and, in the main, healthier lives. When they do become dependent, the cost to the Council is very considerable. The Council’s aim is to enable more people to live longer at home and be supported there rather than going into sheltered accommodation. The policy of ‘Transformation’ is based on a significant reduction in personnel together with higher expectations on the voluntary sector and an assumption of a willingness on the part of beneficiaries to accept new ways of being supported. While there is obviously merit in trying to find new ways of providing services, there can be no disguising the fact that provision will get worse for some and this is a matter of great concern, both locally and nationally.

8 Transport and Highways

  1. Road maintenance and footpath repair are an increasing source of complaint from residents.
  2. A very recent report shows a marked deterioration in road safety statistics for Cambridgeshire.

Killed or seriously injured casualties in Cambridgeshire have increased by 21% from 286 in 2015 to 347 in 2016 and the latest 2017 figures (August 2016 - July 2017) show 412. Factors such as reduced funding, driver behaviour, changes to the way collisions are recorded and people’s lack of fear about being caught committing traffic offences are all thought to have contributed

9 Education

All Cambridgeshire secondary schools are now ‘academies’ which means that the Council has no jurisdiction over them. The proportion of Cambridgeshire secondary school pupils attending schools rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ has increased since last year. National research findings confirm that becoming an academy does not of itself raise standards.

Only a small minority of primaries have become academies. The Ofsted assessment of our primary schools is much more positive and the improvement has been more marked in the maintained primaries than in the academies. Primary schools were under pressure to consider changing to academy status but this seems now to be less important after a change of Prime Minister who has bigger issues to handle. The financial advantage of being an academy, significant in the earlier days of the policy, has now disappeared. The County Council retains responsibility for the ‘well-being’ of children in academies though it has no formal role in intervening when things go wrong.

Central government grant to Cambridgeshire improved in 15-16, was maintained for 16-17 and 17-18. A further small improvement emerged from the ‘National Funding Formula’ published in September 2017. But, alas, costs in schools are increasing at a higher rate so there is, in real terms, a cut, estimated to be about 7% over the next three years. .

The government has maintained its provision of free school meals for all infant school pupils irrespective of financial need. The Pupil Premium (allocated to children whose families qualify for free school meals) has been protected at £935 for secondary and £1,300 for primary pupils. This is spent on ‘narrowing the gap’ in academic attainment between the well-off and the poor and appears to be having a positive effect.

Major reductions in the services for young people, particularly those benefiting from the Children’s Centres, are included in the CCC Business Plan.

10 Work in Cambridge undertaken by your County Councillor

Every councillor is expected to develop an area of personal expertise and for me this is Children and Young People (CYP). As the Liberal Democrat Spokesman for CYP, I have regular briefings from the Executive Director, attend the CYP Services Committee and serve on the Schools Forum (school funding issues). The CYP is also involved in school place planning, Children’s Centre re-structuring, and has oversight of school achievements. I serve on a number of working-parties including the Pensions Fund which looks after the investment of employee and employer contributions for local government staff.

11 Buckden specifically

a. I attend monthly Parish Council meetings where I report on current issues and listen to the reaction of the Parish Council, following up any points they raise. I liaise with the Parish Clerk between meetings as required.

b. I arrive early to the parish council meetings and hold a ‘surgery’ to give residents a chance to make direct comments or bring individual concerns to me.

c. The main concerns are traffic=related: the A1 roundabout and the railway crossing between The Offords and Buckden. Both parish councils continue to put pressure on Network Rail to honour their previous promise to build a bridge over the tracks. This will become increasingly important if the rail traffic increases, as it is planned to do. We have also enlisted the support of The Mayor.

d. I have helped the parish council with its bid for funding towards a more formal a crossing at The Green to help pupils and elderly people get across the busy road at this point. I have also been working with a parish councillor to get a crossing on the Buckden Road in Brampton but this will take some time to achieve as it is a Privately Funded Highways Initiative.

e. an important aspect of my work is to respond to requests for information from residents, dealing as far as possible with their complaints and queries, but, alas, without any guarantee that I can achieve what they would like. There have been many understandable grumbles about the delays in getting into Huntingdon through the various roadworks.

12 Combined Authority

Since May 2017 there has been a ‘Combined Authority’ for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough with James Palmer (Con.) as Mayor. The combined authority comprises Peterborough City Council (a unitary authority), the district councils of Huntingdonshire, Fenland, East Cambs, South Cambs and Cambridge City, and the County Council. The Mayor has a Cabinet comprising the Council Leaders from all the constituent councils, i.e. six Conservatives and one Labour, and there is also a scrutiny panel. The Mayor has been focusing on getting grants particularly for transport improvement. The government has also allocated the CA money towards housing developments. The original ‘Devolution Deal’ provides an extra £20 million per year for the next 30 years and this is to be used for a wide range of infrastructure projects across the combined areas. The office of mayor and staff, originally costed at £800k per year, has now risen to over £2 million. The salary of the Mayor has risen to over £80k. It is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of this new development. Some people are already saying that the introduction of a Combined Authority makes it unnecessary to have County and District Councils as well and perhaps one of the layers of local government could be pruned to save costs. 

13 The future for local government services and the implication for communities

It is now becoming increasingly clear that the structure, funding and capacity of local government as we have known it for many years is changing. The Local Government Association, a cross-party organisation, is sounding the alarm-bells. Lord Porter, the LGA Chairman (Conservative) said in the most recent LGA magazine: ‘The reality is that many councils are now beyond the point where council tax increases can be expected to plug the growing funding gaps they face. Council will have to cut back services or stop some altogether to plug funding gaps.’

Already we see a neighbouring County (Northamptonshire) on the brink of collapse. The expectation appears to be that services will somehow be ‘transformed’ and local groups - parish councils, voluntary groups – will come to the rescue of those people in the greatest need.         

Peter Downes, April 2018