Tax increase and controversial cuts to Citizens Advice funding approved in Suffolk County Council's budget for 2019/2020
Suffolk County Council’s budget, which features a four per cent council tax rise and a controversial decision to cut funding to Citizens Advice services, has been given the final go-ahead.
The budget was approved, following a lengthy three-and-a-half hour debate at the county council’s headquarters in Ipswich last week, when the final proposals were approved by 47 votes to 17.
It means that, starting in April, Suffolk taxpayers will see a 2.99 per cent increase on their county council tax bill, as well as an additional one per cent increase on the social care precept.
Coupled with the 12.7 per cent increase in the county policing precept and the anticipated three per cent rises at district councils, most band B properties are expected to face a £65 increase on their bill.
The decision to introduce phased cuts over two years to the Citizens Advice grant, equating to more than £180,000 next year, was also approved – although an announcement by clinical commissioning groups earlier in the week threw the service a lifeline by offering to cover that grant for 2019/20.
Conservative councillor Richard Smith, cabinet member for finance and assets, said the authority had to make difficult decisions.
He added: “We are doing our best to set a fair budget for everybody in Suffolk.
“I think we have done that and I am proud of what we have achieved.
“We will work hard in the next 12 months to bring that budget into reality and we will stick to it.”
The overall budget marks an increase of £15 million from this year’s budget, with the cabinet stressing the need to invest that money into the county’s most vulnerable people – through children and adult care budgets.
But the budget features more than £10 million in savings from a variety of areas, including road gritting, bus timetables, maintaining road signs and lines, and Duke of Edinburgh Award accreditation, among other areas.
Sarah Adams, leader of the Labour group, said: “The Tories may be delighted that NHS money has bailed them out on this occasion, but while they celebrate with a glass of champagne and congratulate themselves on a job well done, the sword of Damocles still hangs over Citizens Advice.
“They know that this is nothing more than a quick fix and that it does not solve the real issue of long-term sustainability.
“It is clear that the Tories are happy to pass the buck to other public sector organisations, rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.
“If this is how they treat Citizens Advice, then I am fearful for the future funding of charities and other voluntary organisations.”
The budget featured phased cuts over two years to the Citizens Advice grant, which equates to around £368,000 for those 24 months.
Richard Rout, cabinet member for environment and public protection, confirmed that any decision on Citizens Advice funding for 2020/21 would be made in next year’s budget setting process, and vowed to continue working with the various branches to help find a solution.
A petition of more than 6,500 signatures urging the council not to cut its grant funding to the Citizens Advice network was presented ahead of the meeting, while protesters against the cuts demonstrated outside Endeavour House.
The Labour group at Suffolk County Council had tabled an amendment to the Citizens Advice element of the budget, proposing a ring-fencing of £2,500 from each councillor’s locality budget – a £8,000 pot each councillor gets to award to projects in their division – to fund the service.
The proposed amendment was rejected at Thursday’s meeting, with 12 councillors voting in favour of it.
Andrew Stringer, leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group, questioned where the ambition was to increase income that would mean fewer cuts were needed.
“The Conservative’s budget has absolutely no vision for the future of Suffolk,” he said.
“Instead, they are making hugely damaging cuts that will hit the poorest and most vulnerable in our county.
“They are cutting funding for Citizens Advice, they are cutting bus services in rural areas and they are cutting money for road maintenance. We will all feel the effects of these cuts.
“There is a poverty of ambition in this budget that will lead to greater poverty for our residents.”
Suffolk County Council’s final budget for 2019/20 is set to slash 50 per cent of Citizens Advice funding – around £187,000 – and it is expected to be phased out completely next year.
However, Citizens Advice has been handed a short-term lifeline, after two clinical commissioning groups – NHS Ipswich and East Suffolk CCG and NHS West Suffolk CCG – agreed to pay the money that was due to be cut for this coming financial year.
This means that total funding for the service in 2019/20 will remain at the current levels of £374,000.
The Sudbury and District Citizens Advice branch, which until now has received a grant of £44,000 from the county council each year, has welcomed the new funding agreement as a “great relief” for its staff, volunteers and users.
But it warned the measure will only provide temporary security and it still needs a long-term arrangement to meet its total annual operating costs of £150,000.
Green Party councillor Robert Lindsay says the cuts to Citizens Advice and public transport in Suffolk send the message to residents that these services are not valued by the county council.
Cllr Lindsay, who represents an area including Lavenham, Bildeston, Monks Eleigh, Brent Eleigh, Preston St Mary, Elmsett, Kersey, Semer, Thorpe Morieux and Wattisham, was among the opposition members to vote against the 2019/20 budget.
He explained his biggest objection to the budget was the removal of Citizens Advice funding, and stated it would have a knock-on effect on many of the service’s users and volunteers in his constituency.
“I know many people in my area use the service and I know several people who are also involved with either Sudbury or Stowmarket Citizens Advice as volunteer advisors or trustees,” he said.
“Citizens Advice provides massive value for money, both for society as a whole and for local authorities specifically.
“Many parish councils contribute already to its service, but they cannot be expected to be as reliable a source of funding as the county council.
“I believe the council could be far more creative in looking for ways to generate income; for example, by using renewables and battery storage to generate power which would bring in income.”
Cllr Lindsay also lamented the cutbacks to local bus services, claiming it would further isolate residents who live in rural areas and who do not own a car.
“They are cutting another slice off the already reduced subsidy they provide rural bus services, potentially putting some of the bus services to Sudbury and Bury from villages in my patch under threat,” he said.
“The bus service from Bildeston to Sudbury via Monks Eleigh and Brent Eleigh was nearly reduced to nothing a few years back, leaving village residents who are unable to drive ever more isolated.”