I have been receiving worrying reports of more cuts next year. Now it is perfectly true that the root cause of the cuts is the Government, who happily withdraw large amounts of funding from local authorities with no consideration of the consequences. However, West Sussex County Council’s leadership cannot escape some of the blame. They should have been shouting from the roof tops about the damaging effect of cuts, but for a long time they stayed silent. Recent weak criticism by the Council Leader of some Government policies is too little, too late.
In a report on the Council’s Financial Strategy, the Director of Finance said, “This is the most challenging Financial Strategy the County has ever faced, with significant demand pressures faced, on-going significant reductions in grant support from Government and uncertainty over other funding streams and the future funding system for local authorities.” It also seems that some Council services are likely to overspend this year. In addition, many of the savings forecast to come from this year’s cuts, and agreed only in February, may not be realised, thus worsening the overall position.
With costs rising as a result of such things as the weaker pound and the improvement of dreadfully low pay in the care sector, the situation can only get worse. It is also reported that West Sussex receives the lowest school funding level per pupil in the country, amounting to some £200 million less than many London boroughs. School results are already below average in West Sussex, so further cut backs in schools will do nothing to improve results.
There have been suggestions that our Fire & Rescue Service may have to save more than £2 million next year. Last year’s cuts of £1.6 million resulted in the loss of five frontline fire engines. Previous cuts saw the closure of three fire stations and the loss of six fire engines. The often quoted ‘back office’ areas, where it is claimed that cuts can be made without affecting the service, have been squeezed dry, so it is difficult to see how any cuts can be made without seriously affecting frontline response.
The cuts made so far have already seen an increase in response times, in some cases significant increases. Any further cuts to staffing and frontline fire engines will be disastrous, but there is clearly a danger that they will see this as their only option. Could Lancing and East Preston be closed? Might they look again at that illegal crewing system that involves continuous duty, part on station, part on call. Might they go down the route of Hampshire and North Yorkshire and use inadequately crewed vehicles to replace properly crewed fire engines? I sincerely hope none of these will be considered.
They should first shout long and hard at Government and be honest with MP’s, instead of pretending cuts are not damaging. Short sighted cuts to the fire & rescue service do not save the country money. The costs arising from fires and other emergencies, such as property damage, loss of business and social care, all increase and together outweigh any savings. If that fails, the Council need to consider using some of their reserves to soften the blow, and they really must resurrect the plan to merge East & West Sussex Fire & Rescue Services. That may be the only way to save money with minimum effect on frontline service.
With County Council elections next May, perhaps now is the time to start lobbying Councillors to get their finger out and campaign to stop the finance reductions. With most West Sussex County Councillors being in the same political party as the Government, surely they can bring some pressure to bear. I also hope to see Councillors and candidates from other parties regularly speaking out on these issues.