A proposed ‘core offer’ detailing what county council services residents of East Sussex can expect to be delivered have been branded ‘appalling’ by the Lib Dems.
An idea first floated in July this year, Conservative-led East Sussex County Council says the core offer is intended to be ‘an articulation’ of what its minimum level of public services would look like over the next three years.
Without extra funding from central Government the council would need to find £46.3m of savings, with £33m left to identify.
At Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, deputy leader David Elkin (Con. – Eastbourne Sovereign) said: “For me, eight years of historic austerity has seen local government be required to absorb a disproportionate share of savings in order to get the country living within its means again.
“With all this in mind we have looked at what we need to provide as a statutory service plus what would be a decent level that our residents would expect. This has become known – not just across East Sussex but nationally – as the core offer.
“Eyes across the country, I promise you, are on us and we now have the attention of central government.”
Cllr Elkin added that he believes setting out the core offer was ‘a good approach’ in planning for the council’s future finances.
This view was supported by council leader Keith Glazier (Con. – Rye and Eastern Rother), who said the discussions around the core offer had ‘been heard and recognised’ by central government as it undertakes its comprehensive spending review.
But after the meeting Philip Daniel (Ringmer and Lewes Bridge), the Lib Dem group’s spokesman for resources, said: “The Conservative government has been in charge for the last decade and the Conservatives have been runningEast Sussex County Council for some 20 years. It is nonsense for Cllr Glazier to try to duck the responsibility for these appalling proposals.”
Meanwhile David Tutt (Eastbourne - St Antony’s), leader of the Lib Dem group, added: “The so-called core offer on which the Conservatives are basing their budget for next year will leave residents with less than the basic level of key services.
“The proposals being considered include further cuts to children’s services, adult social care and highways that are simply unacceptable.”
On Tuesday he highlighted concerns of some of residents around the provision for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN).
He said residents were particularly concerned about the council’s statutory duty to provide special schools places and what the ‘slower Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) assessments’ described in the core offer would look like in practice.
Under current legislation councils have a statutory responsibility to provide a EHCP within 20 weeks of request, with a limited number of exceptions.
Cllr Tutt said: “Primary legislation in that area says that to argue a lack of resources – financial or otherwise – is not a defence when not providing for a child with SEND.”
Cllr Daniel criticised the Government for making one-off payments in troubled areas instead of ‘sustainable funding’.
Conservative councillor John Barnes (Rother North West) said: “Nobody in this chamber wants to go to the core offer even, let alone to finding the other £33m we would need to find to achieve a balanced budget.
“Cllr Daniel made the point that we will be in an impossible position where we will either have to breach our statutory commitments or breach our fiduciary duty.
“Frankly, put with that choice, you probably choose to bring the commissioners in, because the commissioners ought to be faced with that choice rather than members.”
Cllr Barnes added that he sees the core offer process as a way to ‘educate Whitehall about the needs of local government’.
However, Labour councillor Godfrey Daniel (Hastings Braybrooke and Castle) argued against this view, highlighting the expected budget shortfall.
He said: “I think this has got echoes of Brexit. We are short of £33.4m and should we not be preparing for a ‘no deal’ outcome?
“We hear from the leader that he has got good contacts with Government, but does he really think that we’ll suddenly have £33.4m to sort these problems out? I doubt even he is that confident.”
Cllr Daniel also suggested modelling what a worst case balanced budget would look like – which the medium term financial plan says would require total cuts of £46m by 2021/22 – and describing it as ‘the government offer’.
Following a lengthy debate, cabinet members agreed to endorse the report.
Any budget decisions for the next financial year 2019/20 will be made in February by all councillors.