Essex's Lib Dem County Councillors ask for "meaningful" consultation in budget response

July 14, 2010 4:32 PM

Acting Leader of Essex County Council Liberal Democrats, Cllr Theresa Higgins, has responded to the coalition budget announcement at the full council meeting. She made it clear that the Liberal Democrat group was elected as the opposition locally and would carry out that role fully and responsibly as they hold the Conservatives to account.

Cllr Higgins said:

"We find ourselves today in a strange position. At a national level we are, of course, in coalition whereas, here in the County the Liberal Democrats are the Opposition Party to the Conservatives.

"Many of the problems outlined in the Leader's statement emanate from the massive mismanagement of public finances by the previous Labour Government. However we, the County Liberal Democrats, were elected in 2009, and we are in Opposition. Our job is to hold the Administration to account.

"The Council is already trying to save £300 million over three years, which will impact on our residents. We do understand that nationally:

  • for every £300 raised, £400 was spent,
  • and the difference raised by borrowing money, leaving this country with a huge deficit, which is not sustainable.
  • it is appreciated that having grant cuts during the year makes an already difficult situation even worse.

"In tackling these figures it is important to emphasise a number of principles:

  • Maximum transparency is required, so that our staff, our councillors, and the public of Essex are aware of what is going on. A particular concern has been raised about the impact of the cuts in the LSP / Essex Partnership Funding, and its impact on very valuable projects negotiated through the LAA, where organisations had every right to expect grants, and cut-backs in these areas could have a disproportionate affect on vulnerable groups.
  • Everything must be done to try and protect front-line services and vulnerable groups. This is also why I have two questions on the Agenda later about Mobile Libraries and Meals on Wheels. As one disabled person put it to me "why do I have to prove to George Osborne that I am disabled?"

"While we understand that timescales are tight, we would like assurances that consultation and public engagement will be meaningful. The opportunities for residents to comment need to be as wide as possible - many of our residents do not access the internet. I do hope that an equality impact and needs assessment has been carried out on the consultation process. What format will the results of the consultation be shared with members, and residents, and when will we be told of the staff ideas?

"We understand that councillors need to be empowered to make decisions in our own areas. The Cabinet system, supported by numerous officers, make the decisions; if non-executive members are to be accountable, they need back-office research support. We have great concerns over the burden placed on the voluntary sector, who are facing the same serious cuts as local government, but there is a danger they will be over-burdened.

"The Local Economic Partnership is meant to be a partnership with business and local people. A lot of people feel that Essex County Council is remote. A full county LEP may not be the path to take for this county. Local partnerships at a local level is what is needed, and does not have to be restricted to present boundaries. The residents want transparency - for them concepts such as the 'Big Society' are meaningless. We welcome an integrated county strategy. I do hope that the districts and boroughs will be consulted. We believe this could be moved forward using the example of highways localism. Having devolved the budget to local areas and, indeed, parishes, this could serve as a good model for other departments. We know through Total Place Pilots that there is duplication of information collected.

"Finally, in summary, what we seek is:

  • Clarity on over-funding and what responsibilities will be developed locally;
  • How will this all be scrutinised and will the responsibility be with the Leader?

"We will work with the Administration in a constructive way to make sure the most vulnerable of our residents are protected."

Cllrs Barry Aspinell and David Kendall issues the following statement:

"We fully endorse and support the comments made by Cllr Theresa Higgins.

"Whilst we support the general thrust of the coalition Governments announcement we will continue to hold the Conservatives running Essex County Council to account every step of the way.

"If the County are serious about devolving real power to local groups and the voluntary sector then the Liberal Democrats will fight to ensure that the funding stream follows to deliver the service. We will also push for clear guidance on the areas of responsibility and accountability"