Susan van de Ven

Liberal Democrat County Councillor for Bassingbourn, Melbourn, Meldreth and Whaddon Learn more

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Annual Report

by Susan van de Ven on 12 May, 2019

Here’s my annual report. The local bit at the top in this version relates to Meldreth, which will hold its Annual Parish Meeting this week, 16 May, 7:30PM, Meldreth Village Hall. The rest of the report pertains to all parishes.

Meldreth Annual Report 2019 – County Cllr Susan van de Ven

I report monthly to the Parish Council on developments at the County level and with my district colleagues provide updates through our community newsletter.  This report notes key local issues, and then pulls together trends at the County Council, looking to the future.

Local issues

  1. East West Rail route options: It’s concerning that the decision-making process on a matter of such profound importance is led by a private company, the East West Rail Company, and is therefore not publicly accountable; and that East West Rail is as much about development as it is a new rail line, but not being led by the Planning Authority. Various conflicts of interests on the part of the County Council have been identified including its Local Plan Call for Sites submissions and these have been brought to the attention of the County Council’s Monitoring Officer.
  2. We still await the result of the Secretary of State’s decision on the potential Rights of Way closure over the railway south of the Meldreth Station bridge.
  3. The potential loss of rights of way figure in the East West Rail route options. 
  4. The 127 Bus Service continues to be subject to a stay of execution at the end of the financial year. The attention to detail, especially of the predicament of rural bus services, in the Mayor’s Bus Review is welcome, but a plan for transforming bus services to a stronger footing is years away.
  5. Road maintenance, footpath repair and road safety are increasing concerns, with diminishing resources.  However futile it may feel, please do log faults and concerns on the County Council Report a Fault website, as a log is necessary for any remedial action, and helps to present a case where there is a lack of funds to deal with essential maintenance.

Cambridgeshire County Council – composition, decision-making, and funding and workforce.

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

The political composition of the Council now stands as: 36 Conservatives, 14 Liberal Democrats, 7 Labour, 2 St. Neots Independents, 1 Independent and 1 Independent resignation with an imminent by-election.  There are 61 councillors in total. The Council has seven decision-making committees with a majority of Conservatives on each committee and every Committee chaired and vice-chaired by a Conservative:  Adults, Children and Young People, Commercial and Investment, Communities and Partnerships, Economy and Environment, Health, 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.  In addition, there are several 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 a Lib Dem. 

I sit on the Health Committee (scrutinizing NHS services and overseeing the Council’s statutory Public Health responsibility – immunizations, heath checks and various prevention programmes including smoking cessation and physical activity), the Cambridgeshire Health and Wellbeing Board, and Education Transport Appeals. I substitute on Adult Social Care and Staffing and Appeals, Commercial and Investment Committee, Children and Young People and Corporate Parenting (the council has responsibility for Looked After Children).

2. Council officers: The Chief Executive and several other senior posts are shared with Peterborough as part of the policy of reducing back office costs.

3. 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; Growth and wider development issues; Trading standards; Waste disposal and recycling centres.                                                                                               

4. Key issues faced by Cambridgeshire County Council:  reduced funding; increasing costs, increasing demand.

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 for 2019-20. Councils have some but not much flexibility to increase tax levels.  The demand for services is increasing as the elderly population and the under-fives increase and services are costing more.

5. 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 2019-20, the Council has voted for the 2% increase for adult social care plus 2.99% which can be used for other services. The cost to a Band D household of every 1% increase is 23p per week. The 4.99% increase will cost £1.15 per week. Over 60% of households in Cambridgeshire are in the lower bands A-C.

The Council’s Chief Finance Officer has informed councillors that the savings needed over the next five years amount to £69 million (in a gross budget of £573 million).

6. 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.

7.  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. 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 ‘wellbeing’ of children in academies though it has no formal role in intervening when things go wrong.

Central government grant to Cambridgeshire improved in 2015-16, was maintained for 2016-17, 17-18 and 18-19. A ‘National Funding Formula’ published in September 2017 was a small move in the right direction. But costs in schools have increased at a higher rate. Independent researchers confirm that, in real terms, funds available to schools have been cut by 8% since 2010.

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.

8. Transport and Highways – as covered above under Parish issues, and Combined Authority below.

9.  Combined Authority: Since May 2017 there has been a ‘Combined Authority’ for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough with James Palmer (Conservative) as Mayor. This 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. five Conservatives, one Labour and one Lib Dem, 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 nearly £6 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. Some critics of the Mayor point to the fact that nearly all his transport improvement schemes are based in the part of the county where he lives.  

11. The future for local government services and implication for communities:

It is clear that the structure and funding 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 March 2019: ‘Even if we scale back all our discretionary services, we will not be able to fill the funding gap facing children’s services, adult social care and homelessness, nor meet the rising demand for these statutory services.’

In recent months the truth of that statement has become increasingly apparent. Our neighbouring county, Northamptonshire, has collapsed financially. Cambs CC imposed a 1.2% salary cut on its employees last Christmas.

The growing expectation is that services will be ‘transformed’ and local groups – parish councils, voluntary groups – will come to the rescue of those people in the greatest need.

The County Council is working hard on making savings in its procedures and in increasing income. It has set itself up as a property company and is trying to sell off some of its land holdings for housing, though processes lack transparency and actions are sometimes at odds with the interests of local communities. It is also planning to move its HQ offices out of Shire Hall in Cambridge to a new building in Alconbury Weald off the A1 north of Huntingdon. This will enable Shire Hall to be leased, possibly as a luxury hotel. The new building will be much smaller than the current Shire Hall and more staff will be located in some of the existing council properties.  A concern is lack of public transport to Alconbury.

12. National uncertainty

While this is a time of uncertainty, we do know for sure is that exciting the EU carries negative implications for local government. The County Council’s Audit and Accounts Committee has considered a report on the potential local impact of Brexit.  It listed 16 potential risks, of which 10 have been scored as having potentially high or very high impact should they come into effect. These include:

  • Workforce recruitment and retention, both within the council and in the services we commission. Health and social care workforces are already facing shortages
  • Ensuring EU citizens are fully informed, especially those who are vulnerable and for whom we have a statutory responsibility
  • Community reactions, including increased community tensions
  • Impact on council finances from a national financial downturn
  • Interruption to supplies and services, including medicines and fuel
  • Impact on travel and road infrastructure caused by disruption to and from ports

If you’ve read this far, I hope this report has been useful! 

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