Last week I emailed Jeremy Pembroke, the leader of Suffolk County Council, asking the following question:
Eric Pickles has written an article at the Conservative Home website today and in the last paragraph says: “It just goes to show that cutting front line jobs and hitting front line services isn’t inevitable- it doesn’t have to be an option at all.”
Can you, please, explain to me why then Suffolk County Council is making cuts in front line services? Or is Mr Pickles wrong?
I thank him for his reply which I am happy to reproduce in full.
Eric Pickles is, of course, absolutely right to highlight the excellent and innovative work of Conservative-run councils around the country.Those that have the scope to fill next year’s budget gap purely with back-office changes and efficiency savings, and without affecting front-line budgets, certainly deserve credit.
At Suffolk County Council we have, over the last four years, achieved around £70million in efficiency savings, turning the authority into one of the two most cost-efficient County Councils in the country. At the same time, we have put an end to the large increases in council tax imposed by the previous Lib Dem / Labour administration prior to 2005.
Indeed, in the last two years, we have delivered the County Council’s low increases in council tax. This year we are proposing that there be no increase whatsoever.
However, Suffolk has an ageing population, which means we face an inexorable increase in demand for our services, and the concomitant additional costs.
As a result, we have significant added costs over the next year, which must be made up alongside the 12.7% reduction in our grant. In total, this means a budget gap of £42.5million.
Despite this, over 80% of the budget gap is going to be made good with efficiencies, changes to back-office functions, and different ways of working. But inevitably, as with other County Councils in a similar position, there will be some extremely difficult decisions to make about front-line services, as you will have seen from our budget proposals.
It is precisely so we can avoid such difficult cuts in future years that we are developing our New Strategic Direction, as a way of improving outcomes for people in the future despite having much less money. Over the next two or three years, we should start seeing the benefits of this emerging. However, unfortunately, for this year, this does not stop us from having to make very difficult choices.
So yes, of course, where councils are able to avoid cutting any front-line budgets, they do deserve much credit and have shown, as Mr Pickles says, that such cuts are not inevitable.
“However, for County Councils such as ours, who already have an exceptional record on efficiency savings over a number of years, and the specific demographic pressures, such cuts, though kept to the absolute minimum, are unfortunately unavoidable.”
The only comment I make on the reply is that Mr Pembroke repeats his claim that Suffolk is “one of the two most cost-efficient County Councils in the country”.
The figures (Nation Indicator 179) on which that claim is made comes with this warning: “Good performance is typified by higher numbers.
“However, the indicator will not provide evidence on absolute value for money against which different councils can be judged. The scope for gains will be different in each area, and the ability to report higher numbers may be limited in any organisation that is genuinely delivering excellent value for money.”
Having made large savings, the NI179 figures for Suffolk tend to justify the case that the county has less scope than some others to make efficiency savings. For more on these figures see my earlier post.