Counting the cost of a working margin

In the House with Huw Merriman SUS-151007-132058001
In the House with Huw Merriman SUS-151007-132058001

Last week in Parliament, the focus from MPs was on the levels of central funding which will be given to our local councils and services. The current Government has made it an aim to see councils becoming self-sufficient. The ambition is for local councils to keep the money they raise from council tax and business rates and then decide how much to spend and raise via these forms of local taxation.

This may be fine for a Milton Keynes or Crawley, where there are plenty of large businesses delivering rates to the coffers. It could also work for Surrey, where there are many large homes paying Council Tax. However, in East Sussex, we do not have the base which will allow us to become self-sufficient. We are lacking in big business due to our poor connectivity to the rest of the country. My argument, to successive Chancellors, is that if we are given the infrastructure investment for a faster rail connection and the duelling of the A21, we should be able to attract the business and then move towards becoming self-reliant. Many people move to our county, downsizing to smaller properties in retirement.

Our situation in East Sussex is best exemplified up by the following statistic: our working age population is decreasing and our retired numbers are increasing. We have the biggest gap between the two in the country and our local finances are starting to suffer as a result.

The County Council have done a great job in finding £112 million in savings from their budget over the last seven years. With demand for their services, particularly in Adult Social Care, ever increasing, our local councils have had to raise Council Tax by the maximum 5.99% level permitted in order to fund their programmes. This increase will have an impact on residents, many of whom will not be seeing their pensions or wages going up by the same level. The pressure on residents from these rises concerns me hugely. I well understand the criticism that, despite these tax increases, more reductions in services may be likely.

It is therefore to Government that I looked for immediate help with our local challenge until we can become self-reliant. With Amber Rudd, and my neighbours in Lewes and Wealden, I have been lobbying the Chancellor for more local help and this stepped up a gear last week. We acknowledged that Government spending on the local government grant had gone up by just over £43 billion to almost £45 billion. Having made a robust case for the challenges in East Sussex, we were able to get some additional funding for East Sussex last Wednesday. It will not be enough, but I hope it will spare the funding for some local groups who were earmarked for reductions when the council set its budget the day prior to this extra amount being announced.

It is now down to all of the elected representatives in the county, be they in local government or in Westminster, to continue to work together to make East Sussex more sustainable by attracting more working-age residents and business rates. We can do this by building homes, supporting business investment and continuing our push on road and rail reform.

Perhaps the biggest issue impacting our local position is the amount of money we spend on social care. This has gone up from a third of our County Council’s budget to over half and will continue to rise, and cause your council tax to do likewise, without reform. As I have argued in Parliament, social care needs to be funded directly by Government, as the NHS is, or we need more contributions for care at home from those who use it and can pay out of their estates.

Radical reform of the provision of social care will mean it gets the funding which it badly needs in order to look after the elderly and vulnerable with respect. The current position is not only failing to see our mostly needy residents cared for but is also leading to 6% council tax increases from every household. I think of this as the challenge of our lifetime; and one which all politicians must unite over in order to provide a sustainable and fair solution.