Cllr Chris Read
Cllr Chris Read

On Wednesday, Labour councillors in Rotherham set the Council’s budget for the next two years. This is another budget set against the backdrop of even further Tory austerity with even more cuts in the government grant to Rotherham Council. Over the next two years, Rotherham will have a £30m funding gap and by 2020 the total cuts to the authority will reach £200m. 

Cllr Chris Read, Labour Leader of Rotherham Council, speech on the Council’s 2019 budget.

Colleagues – I want to start by thanking all the people whose hard work enables me to present this budget today; Cabinet colleagues who have worked hard and selflessly again to deliver the best possible proposals, our staff, especially in Finance, and of course Cllr Alam, who remains resolutely unflappable as we grind our way through some of the most difficult conversations that we have.

This is the fifth budget that I have presented to this chamber. Each year, the grim gruelling tide of Tory austerity reaches a little higher and a little further.

And as I set out last year, each year the steps that we take to hold off the worst effects from on those least able to afford it becomes more important.

A decade of austerity that means, by the end of the next two years, we will have been forced to find cuts and savings amounting to more than £200 million from the council’s budget. That’s nearly £800 for every man, woman and child who lives in the borough.

Only this week five of the biggest children’s charities in the country joined forces to slam what they called the “devastating and dangerous” funding cuts to Children’s Services across the country.

When I became Leader of this Council four years ago, there were a little over 400 children in our care. Last year that number hit 660.

And whilst, as members of this chamber know, that number has since fallen and we are taking steps to ensure that more vulnerable children are able to stay in a family setting, with the right support, if that’s the right thing for them – our primary obligation is to our children.

So as we set out our budget plans for the next two years, we are committing a total of £17 million more than was planned to ensure that we meet the needs of children in the council’s care.

In 2014/15, the net revenue budget for the Children’s Services directorate was £42.9 million. Next year it will be £65.4 million.

The number of agency social workers in our Children’s Services is now well below national average. Changes to our Early Help services are already well underway and our new pathway will ensure that children deal with fewer professionals, with fewer hand offs, improving their experience. We will reduce our costs over time, but we will do it in the right way, in a way that’s sustainable.

In Adult Social Care, we continue to follow the plans that we set out, maximising personal independence, working more closely with our partners in the National Health Service, building more specialist housing.

In our initial proposals, we put forward reductions to the funding for the contracts currently held by Healthwatch and Rotherham Sight and Sound, which together would have totalled nearly £90,000 next year.

We received strong representations during the consultation, including from service users, who expressed concern about this reduction and the impact they feared it would have.

We heard those concerns, and I can confirm today that we will continue to provide nearly £55,000 of that money, which I hope will allay the fears of those service users.

At every stage, we have strained to save the money we need without reducing the services that residents rely on. Take for example our plans for Customer Services.

Four out of every five people who signed up for the new garden waste service did so online – with three times as many people registering in the first wave as we had expected.

So it cannot be right, two decades into the twenty first century, that it you need a bulky waste collection from the council you can only do it by speaking to someone on the phone.

Our frontline street cleaning staff do a great job, in all weathers and often in very difficult circumstances, so why can’t we make their lives easier by allowing them to see the actual pictures of problems that people report?

The council’s website is outdated and too often people who use services are forced to repeat the same information to different services and departments.

It’s frustrating for them and inefficient for us.

So we are upgrading our IT, and we expect to launch a new council website in the autumn, making it easier for residents to use the services they want to, and reducing the cost of running them.

People’s expectations of their councillors have changed as well.

Good councillors have always been part of their communities, engaged in local issues, hearing local concerns, advocating of local solutions.

That’s why we took £30,000 out of our own pockets when we moved to the new Neighbourhoods model.

As a result, Wath councillors are investing to improve Montgomery Hall.

Rother Vale ward councillors are helping to secure a regular Afternoon IT at Treeton Community Centre.

Sitwell and Boston Castle members are doing their bit to tackle crime and nuisance on the Duke of Norfolk Estate.

In each area the issues might be different, but the need to work alongside our communities is the same.

So approval of the budget and financial strategy assumes the carry forward into 2019/20 of any remaining funds from the Community Leadership Fund and delegated Ward Budgets. This is in line with the agreed principle of the allocation of these funds for Neighbourhood Working that the funds are spent according to the priorities of Ward Members.

And as we build on the principle of locality working, we will bring forward proposals in the next few weeks to bring together the HRA funding currently allocated through the Area Housing Panels and challenge all of us to work more closely with our housing tenants to spend that money wisely to resolve local issues.

That proposal will mean additional resources in the hands of ward councillors in every ward to help deliver the ward plans they have set out.

And of course we continue to freeze councillor allowances in cash terms, keeping the council’s spend on councillors below the level it was over a decade ago.

We’ve heard through our Neighbourhoods work that speeding traffic is a growing concern, we are allocating an additional £450,000 of capital investment over the coming three years to address local concerns about speed limits and road safety.

Joining us in that work, South Yorkshire Police will also be making additional resources available for speeding enforcement.

And it shouldn’t stop there.

In needing to save money in Streetpride, we will remodel the service so that it is more focussed on providing the right services in each ward and locality. And we’ll integrate our Enforcement and Regulatory Services teams, building on the work that has already been done to co-locate staff with the police in Rawmarsh, Maltby and at Riverside.

Colleagues, we heard a few months ago the frustration of the family who have seen anti-social behaviour and vandalism to their memorial in Clifton Park. We will fund the provision of the CCTV that they demanded, and we will look wider, to see where else in the borough we may need to deploy cameras.

On all these things: CCTV, the Sight and Sound and Healthwatch funding, on road safety – and yes, in providing more free parking in the town centre every Saturday through the year – we have listened to what the public have said to us, and we have been able to respond.

But colleagues, we can’t always do it. Sometimes we have to do things that are difficult and unpopular, and the financial crisis facing local government only makes that situation worse.

I think the public understand that. As part of our budget consultation, 63% of the people who expressed a view told us that, in light of the £30 million funding gap we are facing, they would be willing to pay at least 3% more council tax in order to protect services.

We don’t make that proposal lightly.

Last year I said that the whole future of English local government hung in the balance. And despite the patching up from central government – some one-off funding here, a little more freedom to raise council tax there – it still does.

Within the next year, the government must decide how councils are going to be funded in the long term.

In the last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed how their plan to remove deprivation from the funding formula moves even more funding away from areas like ours to wealthier parts of the country.

For us that could mean as much as a further 10% reduction in the assessed need per resident.

It’s the wrong plan, it would hurt those least able to afford it, and it betrays the consciences of those who are proposing it.

Which takes me back to where I started.

Last year Northamptonshire had just issued their Section 114 notice. They had run out of cash.

To those people who ask: why do we do it? Why keep making the tough decisions year in and year out? I say it’s because we know what happens if we don’t.

Just take Northamptonshire’s Children’s Services, now in their second period of government intervention. Hundreds of children reportedly waiting for months for social work assessments. Ofsted reporting that staff feel “overwhelmed” and “drowning”, with caseloads in some cases as high as fifty.

And my heart goes out to them. Because if anyone knows how that feels, we do.

And contrast that with the changes we have made here, because we’ve taken the hard road.

Ofsted regarding our services for the most vulnerable children “transformed”. Significant improvements in the response to child sexual exploitation, services for care leavers “outstanding”.

Of course, with our history, we will never be complacent. But we know who loses out the most when we back away from the responsibilities that the public gave to us. Always those who need the system to work the most. Always those whose voices are heard the least.

And on behalf of those people, Mr Mayor, we are doing all that we can to give certainty to our residents, our service users and our staff. This is our plan.

And I move.

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