“In an ideal world we wouldn’t do this but unfortunately we’re not in an ideal world.”
This was the message from Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex County Council, speaking before Christmas after proposed funding cuts feared by homelessness charities and police were made real.
After weeks of speculation, the council confirmed last month it will cut the housing related support budget from £6.3m to £4.6m in 2019/20 and then to £2.3m in 2020/21.
Other cuts will see the Local Area Assistance (LAN) budget, which provides crisis support, such as food banks and Citizens Advice, reduced from £807k to £200k per year.
And the Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG), which gives people who receive publicly funded care and support enough money to cover day-to-day living costs, will be cut to the statutory minimum.
In an ideal world, West Sussex wouldn’t have had its government funding cut by £145m in the last eight years, cutting £200m from its own budget over the same period.
In an ideal world, the county wouldn’t have to find another £145m of savings over the next four years and it wouldn’t be facing a gross budget gap of £50.9m in 2019/20.
But in an ideal world people wouldn’t be sleeping on the streets or be in such dire financial straits that they need to use food banks. And they wouldn’t have to look to the council for help.
Back in December, Sussex Police and the homeless charity Stonepillow issued stark warnings about the consequences of the cuts.
There were fears of more deaths among rough sleepers, as well as concerns about the monitoring and support of hundreds of sex offenders following their release from prison.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “It’s natural that they would raise all those concerns and of course we listen to those concerns.”
West Sussex has been funding housing related support out of its core budget since 2011, when the government’s Supporting People grant was cut.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “There are parts that we don’t have to fund and that’s what we’ll be looking at, but there are a lot of old contracts currently within that supported housing which are really not fit for purpose.
“So it’s absolutely right that we go through this process.”
She added: “This is probably one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made, but the financial situation is also equally hard.”
The final decision was made by Amanda Jupp, cabinet member for adults and health.
Earlier in December, members of the council’s health and adult services select committee (HASC) called on her to delay the decision after they were told that the money being spent essentially saved millions elsewhere.
Dr James Walsh, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, accused Mrs Jupp of acting with ‘inordinate haste’ and attempting to ‘smuggle this devastating announcement through just before the Christmas break’.
He said: “The evidence before the committee came from the seven district and borough councils, the coalition of the 19 homeless charities in West Sussex, the NHS, the police and the probation services, and indicated that the £5.1m spent by the county council saved £38.3m from the public purse in these other services.
“By any reckoning that has to be good value for money.”
Mrs Goldsmith, though, said Mrs Jupp had done ‘a really good job in working with all of the voluntary sector and with the districts and boroughs to mitigate any impact’.
One question which has been repeated over and over by the public and some councillors, is ‘why can’t they look elsewhere for savings?’
Mrs Goldsmith said: “We have looked elsewhere.
“I think we’re a very lean organisation and we’re in an OK position compared to many other councils.
“There wasn’t an awful lot of room when you’ve taken £200m out of the organisation. Where do you look?
“We have taken decisions and we’re late looking at the supported housing. Other councils have said to me ‘we did that three to five years ago’.
“In my heart of hearts I’d hoped we would have been able to keep it.
“But because it’s not our main statutory duty, then we have to look at everything.
“We’re in a no stone unturned situation and we will continue with that because we’ve got a lot more savings to make.”
One stone which appears to many to have been left unturned is the council’s reserves.
There are £175m in the coffers and, while all but £20m of that has been ‘earmarked’ for other projects, Mrs Goldsmith was asked why one of those projects could not be the housing related support fund.
She said: “It is an option but once you spend it what happens then? It’s £6m, in ten years that’s £60m. What happens when there are other demands?
“If a child with severe physical disabilities moves into this county, we are immediately responsible for that child. And that child will take a large chunk of our money every year.
“We can’t say ‘oh by the way, we used all that money, so you will not get looked after’. It’s those scenarios that we have to think of all the time.
“We have to keep a focus to ensure we have adequate funding to meet any emergency and also to ensure we’re in a good position that we can deliver to those people that need it and who we have a statutory liability to.”
Looking to the future, Mrs Goldsmith said she was keen for all councils in the county to work together to form a ‘global’ housing strategy.
Each borough and district has its own strategy, which ensures it has enough homes and housing services to meet the needs of its residents.
But Mrs Goldsmith feels that teaming up would be the best way forward.
She said: “We know that when we work in partnership we have much better success rates for doing things.
“We want a global [housing strategy] for the county and why we want that is because the government has made quite a bit of money available to bid for schemes for homelessness, to really reduce people living on the street.
“We will be successful in that bid if we work together. We work together, we have a clear strategy and we know what we’re asking for.”