Liberal Democrats on Surrey County Council (SCC) have criticised the Conservative-administration for budget proposals containing £54m of further cuts to services and a 6% council tax rise. The budget recommendations are due be approved by the County Council on Tuesday 6th February.
Liberal Democrats are concerned that a rise of nearly 6% is “unaffordable for many Surrey residents, particularly for those on fixed incomes”.
Why are they in such a mess?
Liberal Democrats claim that SCC is wasting money by not using or selling buildings it owns in Surrey. In just one financial year, 2016/17, £307,464 was spent on maintaining 20 vacant buildings.
They also point out that SCC is investing in property outside of the county – when it could be investing locally and contributing to the local economy.
Furthermore SCC is not using revenue raised from such investments to support the provision of essential services, despite repeatedly assuring residents that income from commercial property will be reinvested in services. It has even recently earmarked £3.8m of this income to be spent on purchasing more property.
Cllr Hazel Watson, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Surrey County Council, said:
“This budget contains drastic cuts to services such as libraries, road maintenance, services for children and families as well as cuts to support for people with learning disabilities.
She notes it is a failure of the Conservative-administration to get to grips with the financial problems at County Hall, as well as a failure by central government to provide adequate funding to County Councils.
Liberal Democrat Councillors on Surrey are clear that the Conservative administration needs to take its share of the blame for the financial crisis at County Hall and cite the report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy saying “the Council’s financial plans are not robust and it is at risk of becoming financially unsustainable” and that the council’s financial position was “extremely worrying”. Given the continuing financial mess at County Hall, it is clear the report was entirely correct in its analysis and its warnings have not been heeded.
Councillor Watson also cites the many empty council owned buildings across the county that the County Council has failed to utilise properly, instead letting them decay and incurring hundreds of thousands of pounds of costs keeping them empty, in some cases for over a decade. In just one financial year, 2016/17, £307,464 was spent on maintaining 20 vacant buildings. This is a straightforward waste of money and a missed opportunity to bring in capital receipts or rental income which would have improved the County Council’s financial position.
“Because of the financial crisis at County Hall, the Conservative-administration is now gambling about £200m of pounds of council tax payers’ money on purchasing commercial property, such as warehouses and office blocks, hundreds of miles away from Surrey. This is risky and will not promote economic growth within the county as so many of the properties are so far away.
“Every day, the County Council is acting more like a property investment company rather than a local authority. Even the Government, in a recent piece of guidance, had to remind councils like Surrey County Council that “local authorities need to remember that their prime duty is to deliver statutory services for local residents” – this is something that the Conservative-administration has clearly forgotten.
“This budget is a bad deal for Surrey residents, who are being asked to pay more for less. The County Council’s own survey of residents revealed that only 37% of people believed that the County Council provided value for money. Surrey residents should not have to pick up the bill or lose essential services because of the failures of this Conservative-administration”