Two Short Planks

Running a large local authority is not easy. Leading one can be equally fraught. Unfortunately both the Chief Executive of Somerset County Council and now the Leader, Cllr David Fothergill, have trodden on a landmine that they were both responsible for planting. It is, after all, bad enough to be financially close to the bone. It gets worse when vital services are threatened with severe pruning and valued staff are threatened with redundancy. But then, last week, Pat Flaherty the Chief Executive wrote a cringe-worthy begging letter to the Chancellor. If Philip Hammond read it I am certain he would have hooted with derisive laughter. The Budget came and went. And the County Council’s credibility vanished with it. As if by magic the council announced a spending programme of £10 million on County Hall. It was loopy timing from a double act that ought to be on the next stage – out of town.  Today Mr Fothergill dug his feet deeper into the muckheap by issuing this cheery missive to all staff:

“After Pat’s excellent ‘letter to the Chancellor’ in his blog last week I think many of us went into Monday’s budget announcement with hopes raised, and on the whole, we were quite pleased. In my media interviews later that night I stressed that the ‘Devil is always in the detail’ and to date we haven’t seen too much of that detail to comment further.

In his announcement though Phillip Hammond recognised the pressures that local authorities across the country are under and he tackled a number of important funding issues. Firstly, he allocated a further £650m to Social Care in 2019/20 – this equates to around £6.5m for Somerset. Secondly, he gave immediate cash to fund potholes and roads maintenance through the coming winter. The detail I mentioned earlier is important at this stage, as if the London Boroughs are not included, as they are funded differently, then our expected £4m would be well in excess of this figure.

Importantly, he also invited applications to share in an £85m fund for Children’s Services transformation, and I know that Julian Wooster and his team are already onto this opportunity. He added more money to the Housing Infrastructure Fund that should help our bid, which includes funding for five new schools, and he also made further funds available for developing Industrial Strategies. On the latter we have already been advised that we are in the next wave of allocations, and working with the LEP and our colleagues in the Heart of the South West Joint Committee, we look forward to advancing our case. Finally, there were some positive words around the next phase of Business Rate Retention Pilots where we remain hopeful.

All this could be seen as good news and I wouldn’t want to sound ungrateful, but at the moment we are still facing a projected £19m gap next year, and whilst these announcements help, they do no fix the long-term funding model, which I frequently describe as broken. It’s still imperative that we live within our means and deliver on the savings proposals already agreed, and those being pulled together to meet the £19m gap. We must therefore remain vigilant with costs and our budgeting for next year until we have a clearer view of the Government’s longer term financial strategy for local authorities. This was a point I made very clearly when I met James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, and Rishi Sunak, the Minister for Local Government on Wednesday evening in Westminster.

In the last couple of days one of the main stories in the local media has been around County Hall’s A-Block refurbishments. While this is not a new story for many of us, in fact I remember conversations held by my predecessor three years ago, it suddenly gained momentum with the lodging of plans for listed building consent at Taunton Deane. I know that most people inside the Council will understand, but one of the major issues we’re having is to explain the difference between Capital and Revenue spending. The main question being posed is “at a time of cost savings how can you afford to spend money on A-Block?” The answer is of course that this is Capital spend, which will bring a significant Revenue benefit for the County Council of over £700,000 per year, thereby actually helping to protect services! But I accept that this is a difficult argument for some to accept. Of course it’s also not helped by the general confusion between Somerset County Council and Taunton Deane both having offices in the town, but we will leave that one for another day!

So as we come to the end of half-term week, it doesn’t feel like there’s been much let up this week, but personally, it does now feel a little more positive than it did before Monday’s budget.

Enjoy your weekend whatever you have lined up.

David”

David Fothergill does a nice line in tweeting twaddle. Since May 1st he has been trying to persuade all and sundry that the only answer to the County’s problems is to form a new Unitary authority. He seems to have created a new Twitter account with the sole purpose of selling this argument. But Twitter, I fear is best left to Twits. I note that this new enterprise of David’s has only attracted 33 followers.