Monday, 8 July 2013

The Big Interview

For those who missed it I received a list of interesting questions from David Trayner, the reporter at the Evening Echo who leads on political affairs in Southend.

Space restricted some of the original questions/answers but the full list was:

1. Southend, like other authorities, has clearly been hit hard by austerity. However, do you understand how these claims can sometimes be undermined by what many will consider as poor spending decisions e.g. interim officer Mike Boyle, City Beach crossings, the Warrior Square Gardens Kiosk, a £200,000 boat house for rowers or £55,000 for a website when the existing one works fine?
Whilst with any organisation as large and diverse as Southend Borough Council it would be impossible to say we never get it wrong, I am comfortable defending the vast majority of decisions we have taken.  In most high profile cases where the Council has been criticised, such as those you have highlighted, the problem is usually a failure to get across the full and accurate facts.  Sometimes this is as a result of deliberate mischief making by the opposition but it can also arise from confusion between revenue, capital and funded spending.  

 2. Given these spending decisions, which many perceive as a cavalier disregard for public money, do you accept that the council has more to do in terms of being more prudent and careful with public money?
The prudent and careful use of public money is at the centre of every decision we make.  By way of example the Warrior Square Scheme (to include the kiosk) was pursued by Renaissance Southend and was externally funded.  The funder regarded the kiosk as essential and therefore without it there would have been no grant funds to transform the gardens. The website is, in IT terms, outdated and regularly criticised for not being user friendly.  As we try to allow residents greater access to our services via the website we need to ensure that it is up to the job.  Increased use will save us money on a year by year basis.  The boat house capital spend is dependent on external match funding and is also conditional on improved facilities for foreshore staff, increased support for community involvement in rowing and a rental level which takes into account the repayment costs on the capital borrowing.  I am happy to justify any spending decision we make and, if I think we’ve got it wrong, I will say so. 

 3. How much funding has Southend Council lost over since the Government’s austerity programme began and what effect has this had?
From 2010/11 up to the end of the current financial year we were delivered savings of about £43m to achieve our net revenue budget of £139m.  It has had a significant effect on the number of staff we employ and the way our services are delivered.

4.To what degree do you think residents have felt the pain of these cuts and has anything shielded them from the harshest effects of the funding cuts?
Bearing in mind the scale of the cuts to date, I believe that we have done well in shielding residents.  This has been achieved by hard work and creative thinking by my cabinet colleagues and senior officers but each year the challenge gets harder.

5. As Southend Council expects to see an 8.9 per cent drop in funding next year, and up to 10 per cent in 2015/16, how much will residents feel the effects over the coming years?
We have now cut many of our departments to the bone and it will be impossible to achieve these further cuts without an effect on residents.  We are starting to see this as we consult on areas such as our libraries, children’s centres and care homes.

6. What will Southend Council look like in five years? How many staff will it have and what services will it still carry out?
It is impossible to predict with certainty; however, it is inevitable that we will employ significantly less people and for many services our focus will be on supplying quality provision free for those in need but at a fair price for those who can afford to pay.  We will have continued to develop other income streams such as selling our high performing services to others and using the profit to subsidize our activities.  We will have continued to acknowledge that some services can be provided better and more economically by the private sector, the voluntary sector, our residents themselves or in partnership with others.

 7. What specifically could be under threat in future?
 There is no area of the Council’s activity that will be excluded from review and the demand to provide better value for money.

8. Do you accept that it is right to consider cutting services that the council does not have to provide e.g. leisure services – events, parks, flower beds etc – rather than services which people rely on every day like bin collections and care for the elderly?
It is a balance.  It is noticeable that generally over the last few years the savings which have caused the biggest fuss have been items such as cancelling the air show, closing the pier on quiet days during the winter season or stopping the free provision of black sacks.  None of these are services we are required to provide and yet the massive savings that have been delivered in Adult Social Care and Children’s Services have attracted little public comment.  I believe that our challenge is to deliver our statutory services as well and cost effectively as possible so that we still have funding to invest in those things like our parks, libraries etc.  It is these non-statutory services which give Southend its identity and make it somewhere we want to live and work. 

9. What do you think of the Government’s austerity programme? Do you think the Chancellor should be cutting so much from local government spending?
I believe that the austerity measures are essential.  The country is no different from any family or business. To continue with the level of deficit and national debt inherited from the last government would have spelt disaster, not only for us, but perhaps more importantly for our children and grandchildren – something the politicians from all major parties now appear to accept.  Having said that, local government has been expected to endure the steepest reductions in funding over the current spending round.  I also believe that a number of the government’s policies have further and unreasonably added to our burden with some comments by ministers about Councils being at best misguided!

10. I understand Southend Council was cutting spending even before the financial crisis. How much was cut and why were you doing that?
Initially we were under funded due to the errors in the 2001 census as to our population. We also identified further savings to help drive improvements in service delivery across the organisation. 

11. As a Conservative, are you in favour of reducing the public sector anyway?
Yes.  Under the last government we saw a massive increase in the intervention of the state in our everyday lives.  This came with a large price tag for the tax payer.  The reality is that local Councils were effectively required to provide things which, for a variety of reasons, they cannot provide as efficiently or cost effectively as the private or voluntary sectors.  The challenge is that users have become reliant on these high cost and quality services and understandably are reluctant to see them delivered in a different and more cost effective way. 

12. Has the need for lean government got any benefits?
Yes.  In an environment where the public want a low tax burden, lean government helps deliver this objective.  It forces the public sector to concentrate on the core services which it provides most effectively and encourages us all to take greater control and responsibility for our own destiny and to choose and fund our own priorities.   

 13. Has the authority come up with any innovative ways of reducing spending (e.g. libraries)? How will it have to operate in a smarter way in future?
We are determined to become less dependent on our traditional sources of income being central government funding, council tax receipts and car parking income.  We are developing commercial ventures, joint working and better use of our assets as well as ensuring that all services are delivered as effectively as possible but also delivering excellent value for money.

14. Can’t you just put up council tax?
My underlying philosophy is to keep Council tax as low as possible.  Residents expect us to do all that we can to keep their Council tax bills under control.  By the end of the current financial year we will have delivered savings of about £51m during my seven years as leader.  If we were to reinstate this expenditure next April, we would need to raise Council tax by 102%.


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