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March 4, 2017 9:10 PM

Increase in Council Tax to support care for the elderly and learning disabled, now two thirds of council spending.

The LibDem-led opposition group did not vote against the increase in council tax proposed by the controlling Conservative group.

Cllr Avril Davies, leader of the Lib Dem-led official opposition group on Bucks County Council, told the full Bucks County Council meeting this month (February):

"It's tempting but there's no such thing as a free lunch, as public services cost money."

But she said the council had to improve its "competence, vigilance, performance management and above all governance, to ensure the contracts delivering services provide consistent high quality and value."

Mrs Davies, Lib Dem councillor for Ivinghoe division, reiterated that council tax hits hardest those who can least afford it. "It needs to be scrapped altogether [and replaced with] fairer taxation." (Lib Dems favourite a local income tax.)

Replying to the council leader's budget speech, Cllr Davies said for the government to ring fence the increase for ASC ( Adult Social Care) was a smart move as it may have made it more palatable to the public, although it was nothing like enough.

Cllr Davies noted the much bigger share of the budget which now has to go to social services. Over the past four years spending on children's services has gone up by about 50% from a very low base, she said. And spending on adults had risen by 13%, to two thirds of the total council budget."

"However, when all other sources of income are being snatched away [the increase in council tax] is our only option. We are not Surrey, who have, apparently, done a deal with the government [by threatening a referendum] for a bigger cut of the business rates."

Mrs Davies noted that the world had changed since the previous February. when she had responded to a very different style of budget. "Since then, not only is the whole country sinking into the void without a plan, but the risks are so great that so might this council. Ironically I have more hope for the council, in the short term, than I have for the country."

She said the settlement last year (over four years) had been "a smack in the face from a government you [Conservative BCC members] had worked so hard to elect. The cuts were…slice by slice, alongside large gaping holes. In the main, those holes were never closed over and would be carried forward today except for some fortuitous corporate underspending."

She said there was still plenty of evidence in the county council's 2017 budget of "pruning, hacking and squeezing". However the cruel and arbitrary cuts she spoke of last year, which may have had life-changing detrimental results on individuals we may never know of, are different this time.

"Apart from early years, in the main they remain unspecified and aspirational. Perhaps at last this is the opportunity to think big and break the mould. Or maybe not."

In this year's medium term plan, she said, "vast sums of money are being removed and partly recycled under the heading 'service efficiencies' 'strategic review', 'digitisation', but the business cases to go alongside this are sketchy, if not quite in the 'eat cake and have it' category."

Mrs Davies said her opposition group supported the council's Strategic Plan. Although how her group would expect to see the plan implemented, its aims achieved, and to what extent, would be totally different to the Conservative group.

"The plan talks about collaboration, improvement, empowerment, supporting, providing, safeguarding, promoting and preventing. We will do our best to hold you to it, regardless of a Tory party in government, which, according to Tory MP Ken Clark, would have surprised even (right-wing former Tory) Enoch Powell would find surprising.

She said the council had to improve its competence, vigilance, performance management and above all governance, to ensure the contracts delivering services provide consistent high quality and value.

"We have unsecured debt, astronomical prices, exponential demand, second rate IT systems and patchy budget and risk management skills. There is a long way to go to walk the Tory walk as well as talk the Tory talk."

She said Conservative councillors, and cabinet members had to play their part in delivery. "You must be the grit in the oyster, improve performance, and ask the difficult questions daily. You can't afford to leave it to us [the opposition]. Your future depends on it."

"Whether we have enough time to turn the tanker round, I am doubtful, maybe half way round. We must rely on our staff to stay on the bridge while the tempest of elections, a new council, and the decision on unitary rages all around. It's hard being a public servant today, delivering ever more for less, lowering clients' expectations, and casting adrift all but the most vulnerable, the most needy. We appreciate our staff and the difficult decade they are working through."