West Sussex Tories defeated Labour, Lib Dem, and UKIP amendments to next year’s county council budget yesterday (Friday February 17).
The council’s element of council tax is set to rise by 3.95 per cent from April, which includes two per cent for the adult social care levy, raising £15.4m as county councillors looks to plug a £41.6m budget gap in 2017/18.
Like many authorities across the country, West Sussex County Council is seeing its funding from central Government slashed at the same time as facing greater demand for front-line services.
Both Labour and Lib Dem councillors attempted to scrap charges introduced for DIY waste at West Sussex rubbish tips.
Labour also proposed an extra £1m for the emergency fund for schools, while the Lib Dems put forward £1m for adult social care, and £400,000 to reinstate the 3in1 young person’s travel card.
Meanwhile the UKIP amendment called for £250,000 for a study to explore a move to unitary authority status and more money for school crossing patrols and safer routes to school.
Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex County Council, argued that the social care levy was ‘no more than a sticking plaster with very little stick’, describing it as ‘a few drops in a vast ocean of need’.
Meanwhile Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for finance, explained that while this was the second time in a row they had increased council tax, bills had been frozen in each of the six previous years.
Mr Hunt said: “I believe this is a robust budget that continues to deliver the services residents expect of us.”
Sandra James, leader of the UKIP group, argued that unitary authority status ‘opens the floodgates to having recognised savings going forward’ and asked councillors to back her group’s ‘brave’ proposals.
But Mrs Goldsmith claimed it would take £519m to reorganise public services to create a unitary authority and suggested the changes would lead to five to seven years of upheaval and disruption.
Bob Lanzer, cabinet member for highways and transport, felt the UKIP amendment underestimated the community identity in West Sussex and how many residents valued their district and borough councils.
However UKIP’s Ann Rapnik described the ‘not very happy marriage’ between the county council and other authorities such as Arun District Council and the ‘conflict’ created by not having a unitary authority in West Sussex.
The Lib Dem’s extra £1m would have been spent on extra carers’ support, extra care housing, and early prevention services.
Meanwhile James Walsh, leader of the Lib Dem group, said: “We all know there is a huge and unprecedented crisis in adult social care and its interface with the NHS.”
Peter Catchpole, cabinet member for health and adult social care, argued they should not be ‘frightening’ residents about being able to access services, or discouraging people from working in the care sector.
He said: “If we talk the service down we will end up with nobody working in it.”
But Lib Dem Morwen Millson responded: “We need to ensure that our residents understand the problems that we are facing and the country as a whole is facing in the future issues of social care.
“We will need to be able to harness their efforts in asking the Government to address a lack of social care funding.”
On the extra funding for schools, Labour’s Michael Jones called it a ‘financial lifeline for schools struggling in their budgets’.
Beforehand the Conservatives had announced a £1m to help West Sussex schools deliver counselling, especially to students needing help and support around mental health.
On rubbish tip charges, Mr Jones pointed out that since October the amount of soil, hardcore and plasterboard being taken to the dumps had reduced massively, arguing that residents must be fly-tipping more.
Cabinet member for residents’ services David Barling, who explained that a seagull had scored a direct hit while flying over him outside County Hall just after lunch, explained that fly tipping was going up nationally, but they had seen no spike across West Sussex since charges were introduced in October.
He went on to tell councillors that the cuts had to be made to avoid cutting more essential front-line services elsewhere in the county council’s budget.
On the amendments, he added: “It’s deceiving people into thinking there is a pot of gold to go into the cabinet member for finance’s trouser pockets and everything is right again.”
Conservative Duncan Crow likened the budget to Billy Ocean’s 1985 hit ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going’, saying: “The going is getting tough, all of us should recognise there are pressures which are beyond our control.”
On the other side of the chamber, Lib Dem Francis Oppler said he was struck at ‘just how detached many Conservative councillors appear to be and how they do not really understand the deep suffering that goes on with vast swathes of our community across the county’.
But Stephen Hillier, cabinet member for children - start of life, described the idea that Tories did not understand what the most weak and vulnerable in society endured as a ‘wretched and shameful untruth’.
At the end of the debate Pat Arculus, chairman of the council, thanked councillors for the ‘dignified’ way the debate had been conducted, apart from a ‘few unfortunate lapses’.
UKIP’s amendment for funding for a study for unitary authority status was defeated by 39 votes to 11 with six abstentions.
UKIP’s amendment for funding for school crossing patrols and safer routes to school was defeated by 37 votes to 18 with two abstentions.
The Lib Dem amendment was defeated by 38 votes to 14 with four abstentions.
The Labour amendment on emergency school funding was defeated by 37 votes to 19.
The Labour amendment to reverse charges at rubbish tips was defeated by 34 votes to 18 with five abstentions.
The Conservative administration’s budget was passed by 35 votes to nine with 13 abstentions.
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