LibDem respond to the Council's budget

14 Feb 2024
Alison Kelly with budget speech

Alison's full speech is reproduced below. You can also see her give her speech at the Council meeting by watching this video on the Council's website. Jump  to around 1:07:16 to watch her speech.

"Thank you, Mr Mayor,

I’d like to start by thanking all the council employees on behalf of the group.  After years of challenges, they continue to work hard to investigate better and more economical ways to provide services to our residents which is much appreciated.

The papers before us this evening, and the budget book, have a ring of familiarity about them after my absence of 8 years, and I propose to highlight some of the areas where we feel we have made little progress.  Many of our concerns are aligned to our themes from the election manifesto, namely protecting the Green Belt, secrecy, and climate change.

Last year we welcomed the use of S106 money to provide 3 microhomes, so it’s disappointing to see that the planning application has not yet been approved.  The homelessness situation in Epsom has not improved and it hardly counts as progress that the budget provision now reflects that.   When we asked questions at CWB regarding progress on private sector leasing and looking for empty properties in the borough, the reply was that we needed to recruit someone.  The team were looking for a junior to support the admin so they could release more experienced staff to reach out to landlords.

This leads us to make two points.  We need to be better at setting out priorities when it comes to staffing and the roles we ask them to perform.  Staff work hard and we cannot easily add more to their workload.  But we should investigate if changes in the nature and composition of jobs could help better meet the needs of residents.  Are there ways we can upskill existing staff and assess what parts of their workload no longer add value.

Why, when we have over £1m of S106 money, are we not using it with a greater degree of urgency to benefit our residents and our community.  Why has a rewrite of the rules for spending the Community Infrastructure Levy funds (known as CIL money) meant that we have had to cancel a 12-month period for spending any of it.   Sadly, to an outside observer, the answer seems to be that we can’t spend any money as we need the interest to fund the general services.   This is not sustainable in avoiding the looming abyss of filing a notice of bankruptcy better known as a section 114 notice, as has happened to some other local authorities.

This leads us to investigate how the council proposes to plug the gap and to ask if the plans are realistic.  Many councils are in danger of bankruptcy and recent league tables show that we are mid table with nearly £800 of debt per person.  The standout RA plan to resolve this is the anticipated £500K increase in revenue from car parks.  Aspirational at best, a fantasy at worst.  And this comes even though we expect to be nearly £200K down on last year’s budgeted income. 

There was mention at an S&R committee that we need to review the mandatory and discretionary services, and this is planned to take the next 4 years in the papers before us this evening.  All our leisure venues are operated as a discretionary service of course.  We are not required by law to have these.  If we cannot balance our budget, we would need to file a section 114 notice, and these discretionary services would be shut down immediately. We know from our Wells Centre experience that community facilities are hugely valued by our residents, but they will not survive if we cannot balance the budget.  But let’s not be gloomy, let’s find a way to keep as much as we can.

Much the same was said when I was last a councillor, but I still see that the Playhouse requires £370K of  support. Last time I spoke on this subject I urged the RA to approach organisations like the Theatres Trust to see if they could help.  Bourne Hall is equally expensive, but income has improved, and we are making progress.  Along with the work to relocate our council chamber there and improve the building as a wedding venue, it is hoped that the future of this award-winning building as a council-run facility will become more secure. It is unlikely that we can continue to invest in public buildings such as these and we do need them to become self-sufficient.

The council has a statutory duty to manage parks and open spaces and to provide allotments.  Indeed, recent protests regarding the provisions in the draft Local Plan indicate that green space such as allotments, and our Green Belt, are things highly valued by residents.   So are local planning policies, of which we currently have none, because this local plan is over ten years late with current costs running into the millions. 

Meanwhile, except where legally specified – for example on a planning application – the whole area of communications – something we all now tend to refer to as “comms” – is a discretionary service.  What I am saying, is that our comms policy still seems erratic with a rather bewildering strategy recently approved, and a website which is best operated by dinosaurs, and which should have a health warning notice on the home page stating that the search options are extinct. 

Our council group feels there have been some unfathomable instances of resorting to allegedly legally privileged information which is then weaponised to keep an entire topic secret.  There is no secret about needing to review the sites available to developers as part of the Local Plan and there would be almost nil cost in keeping the public abreast of how the in-house meetings on this topic are progressing.  If the comms strategy, under the control of the ruling Residents Association group does not deal with this kind of scenario, then it should do, and in our view is not a good communications strategy. 

Next, we would like to say, there are some good capital projects with an emphasis on saving money, but climate change cannot be resolved by solar panels alone.  There is still little emphasis on climate initiatives, and it does feel as though there is a preference for blaming Surrey County Council rather than acting to, for example, enhance recycling. Could we review conservation area consent to make it easier for households to make their own environmental improvements? 

We believe as an overall treasury strategy, there should be a greater emphasis on ethical investments.  One councillor from the ruling group is known to hold the view that Epsom & Ewell should not be spending anything on climate change issues and feels that it is a central government responsibility to put such measures in place.  Whilst we might agree that central government has long been at fault and behind on such investments, many councils are still able to incorporate a budget which includes climate change initiatives.

Finally, we would like to say that due to the RA group’s insistence over the year of always having below average Council Tax in Surrey, there are many challenges our officers face.  The handcuffs the current Conservative government now wish us to wear certainly don’t help either.  If decisions based on how we meet residents’ changing needs and adapt to different ways of working had been the core guide, rather than the false pride of not cutting services, we might be in a better place.  It is worth noting that the current deficit for 2024-25 uses £540K of reserves – which of course don’t last for ever – could have been alleviated for an extra £2 a year of council tax, which is less than a cup of coffee in one of the boroughs excellent coffee shops.

In conclusion we understand why the proposed tax increase is 2.99%, the maximum allowed. However, we are saddened by the direction of travel, or rather lack of it and cannot agree with all the plans put before us this evening.

Thanks for your attention."