Kent County Council (KCC) recently announced their budget and precept for 2023/24. Apart from the predictable howls about affordability from those who find Council tax an imposition (just about everyone), there were other concerns raised, such as the proposed closures of children’s centres, further restrictions on household waste recycling centres, and other ‘savings’ required to balance the budget. You can be sure that other victims of KCC’s past budget cuts, such as Libraries and Bus services will be given the cut back treatment at some time in 2024. They always do.
KCC faces an existential challenge for its future,
will ‘Toblerone’ policies save the day?
It is my belief that the decision makers at KCC think that these are ‘nice to have’ services, which can be cut back or expanded as expediency requires.
For more than a decade, the council taxpayer has had to face an increased annual council tax bill and received fewer council services in return. KCC have tried to persuade a sceptical public they are getting a better service, when cuts are proposed, which is rather like Toblerone saying that their bar is offering better value when half the original bar is missing. The public are becoming unconvinced that the Toblerone argument holds water, with KCC. For how long will the public put up with paying for what is becoming increasingly like an old person’s health management system?
What’s gone wrong?
Every Council must balance its budget. Unlike Central Government, KCC cannot borrow to fund revenue expenditure. It can balance the budget by raising some money from council tax, raising charges (especially in adult social care), and by ‘raiding the balances’, which means taking money out of its savings account, if they are not pre-allocated or held in the capital account.
If the figures still cannot balance, then their only recourse is to ask for money from the government or to declare a section 114 notice under the Local Government Finance Act 1988. This is what happened to Northamptonshire County Council in 2018. Three years later it was replaced two unity authorities, West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire.
Last year, Kent and Hampshire indicated to the government that they were in difficulties. I think the word bankruptcy was mentioned. I don’t recall this happening before.
Where does all the money go?
In the diagram below from KCC you can see how they spend their money in broad terms:
- The biggest item at 35% of the budget is adult social care.
- Children’s social services are the next biggest item at 12%
- Transport services at 5% include school buses, concessionary cards for pensioners, as well as the tiny amount (£4m) to support rural bus services.
- At £3 in every £100 spent, you can see why there are so many potholes, as Highways expenditure is less than a tenth of Adult Social Care expenditure.
- They could prune their management expenditure which is more than twice that for Highways, but just how much of that is prunable and could be done quickly is anyone’s guess and, in any case, Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
- The items selected for the chop are some of the premises from which the community services are delivered (proposals under public consultation right now) and household waste recycling centres with a proposal to charge £10 per visit by non-Kent residents. But these are tiny savings and will not feed the roaring fire of Adult Social services for long.
- Much of the rest they have to deliver by law, the so-called statutory minimums. If we start running a council that way, it won’t be long before protests will hit the streets of Kent, as the minimum is pretty minimal.
What about increasing the income side of the budget?
Here is a table of KCC’s income sources:
As you can see it is much smaller. Most of the income comes from you, the council taxpayer, at nearly half, or 46% of the total. The rest is government grants dished out when necessary, but cannot be relied upon each year. And, of course, there is income from service users, especially those paying for their own social care, at 16% of the total.
In 2010, KCC would have benefitted from something called the revenue support grant or RSG, which topped up expenditure. This varied according to circumstances and the relative levels of wealth and poverty in a given area.
What’s the future for KCC?
If you cannot rake in more cash and cutting expenditure is not possible or could be harmful, the only way then is to ask Central Government to cough up more cash or reduce the costs of administration by having fewer councils administering the duties given to them, a process called Local government unitarisation. When a Guardian reporter analysed local government formats in 2007 the article was called Splitting headache. A report by CCN (County Council Network) advocated abolishing one tier (the District Councils) and having a single Council (KCC) running things from Maidstone.
Others have talked about two Unitary Councils, based in Maidstone and Canterbury, and indeed this was proposed in 1969, by the Redcliffe-Maud Comittee.
Central Government has suggested ‘Shire Mayors’, like the Police Commissioners and the Metro Mayors. So what are the ‘runners and riders’?
- KCC is already remote, and centralising on Maidstone would not be popular.
- Having failed to agree once, lumps of District Councils forming up Unitary Councils in Kent, is a recipe for disaster, as they failed when they tried before, mainly because the East Kent Councils viewed teaming up with Thanet as problematic.
- Shire Mayors: what or who will they be representing? There is no infrastructure or history to sustain them, as there is in the metropolitan areas of England. The South of England does not have a regional identity, similar to the North, as Grayson Perry found out when he went in search of ‘Englishness’ on Channel 4.
- Canterbury is the natural capital of East Kent if not all Kent. It is centrally located and many in East Kent would accept Canterbury as their centre of administration. After 60 years, perhaps not implementing Redcliffe-Maud can be seen as a lost opportunity?
Will ‘reform/restructuring’ actually save money?
Professor Copus in his essay for the LGA, says ‘There is no empirical evidence to suggest that savings are made’. He might be right, but knowing that ‘the Council’ is responsible for almost everything, it will be helpful for the public to understand who to communicate with, when they have a complaint. At the moment the public do not have a clear indication of who provides each public service.
Savings aside, the only way to sort out social care and local government funding, is to address the issue of taxing not only incomes, but also wealth fairly, and that is the heart of the problem. It is not a matter of a lack of money, it is a matter of accepting that the promise of the ‘Cradle to the Grave’ social welfare system was never promised by William Beveridge in 1942, neither did it account for people retiring early and living in some cases up to 40 years in retirement.
The grand finale: where do we go from here?
Adult social care is like a voracious black hole hollowing out local government. Increasing council tax or income tax, places the burden on working, younger taxpayers. This is not fair or sustainable.
So what can be done?
- Adopt the ‘Dilnot’ proposals for paying for paying for adult social care. This proposal spreads the cost of care by taxing all legacies. For costs of adult social care see the detailed annual reports by the Kings Fund.
- Fund projects and research that can reduce the need for expensive domiciliary social care. This means social care robots and devices, etc that aid and assist social care workers in delivering social care at home, and at lower cost, while allowing councils to pay social care workers more by increasing their productivity.
- Adopt policies that encourage sociability and fitness for the old: Stop cutting bus services, build up a network of third age clubs and organisations, and encourage the NHS to prescribe activity over drugs.
- Simplify local government by reducing the tiers of local government, but take away public transport, social care and possibly education from Unitary Councils. In short Unitary Councils should handle things like waste management, planning, social housing and highways, leaving everything local to local councils (Parks, Gardens, events, tourism, the arts etc). Deliver local devolution, not just promise it.
Furthermore, the national government not fixing adult social care will destroy local government and will make the lives of countless older people fearful and miserable, at the end of their lives. Delaying decisions about this is not a solution: it is adding to the problem.