Saturday, 20 July 2013

Save Our Lollipop People

I recently received one of those round-robin petitions from a couple of people in my ward, asking me to 'save our lollipop people'.

It is certainly an emotive issue, but is it one where we can declare unilateral support?  This is my reply

Dear petitioner,

Thank you for your email asking me to save our lollipop ladies and men and maintain spending on road safety by the council to enable children to make a safe journey to school.

It is important that I begin by telling you that this reply is my personal response, and is not in any way an official ‘County Council’ opinion.

So may I begin by assuring you – having been a teacher for my entire working career until retirement – that the safety of children making their way to and from school is of very great importance to me.

An Era of Cuts
Having said that, however, may I take this opportunity to apprise you of the situation facing the County Council, as I see it at the moment.  As you will be aware, since it came to power, this government has made huge cuts in the funding to local government.  This has been accompanied by measures to discourage Councils from raising council tax, even by the rate of inflation.  Thus Councils have found themselves caught between falling funding and increasing costs, and this has necessitated significant savings … or, as you and I would call them, ‘cuts’.      

People, wrongly, often believe that their council tax funds the activities of the County Council.  Actually, council tax revenue covers only one-fifth of the Council’s budget.  Given that the total shortfall 2010-17 is expected to amount to £202m, even if the County Council were to double its council tax, it would still not cover the total sum needed.

Thus, inevitably, the Council is having to make savings.  Back in 2010, facing what were even then described as ‘unprecedented’ reductions in funding, the County Council conducted a major consultation exercise, in which it asked the public where they felt the savings ought to be made.  That consultation identified management and support services as the preferred focus for cuts.  (A later review, in 2012, indicated that people were generally satisfied with the way the County Council was making the savings.)

July is the time of year when Councils calculate the end-of-year outturn, and begin to make their ‘medium term financial plans’ for the future.  Thus Durham County Council’s Cabinet were told, last week, that the County Council is on target to save £113m by the end of this financial year.  However, further government measures ‘in the pipeline’, along with extra cuts announced in the June Spending Review, have meant that the County Council expects to have to find nigh-on a further £90m additional savings by 2017.

£202m amounts to almost a quarter of the total County Council budget, so you will appreciate that this will involve the Council having to make some very painful decisions.  This is particularly so because the Council has already made huge cuts to the ‘back-office’ functions favoured in 2010 – we are, now, reaching the point where it may have to look at cuts that will bite into valued services.

Prioritising One Cut Against The Others 
What I can assure you, however, is that – before any decisions about further cuts are taken – the County Council intends this autumn to hold another extensive consultation exercise, to ask the public where they wish the emphases to be placed.  The choices offered are likely to be horrific, with people being asked to choose between things like youth workers, potholes, winter maintenance, litter, funding for voluntary organisations, tourism, apprenticeships and a host of other essential services.  You will be able then to decide for yourself how you will rank children’s safety on the way to school (legally a parental responsibility) on the list.      

You ask me whether I will guarantee to ‘save our lollipop ladies’.  The answer has to be that, at this point, I cannot see how any such guarantees can be made.  I appreciate that, faced by an email petition trying to ‘save the lollipop ladies’, it is easy to regard them as a benefit, and to send off the letter asking your local councillors not to cut that service.  Councillors regularly receive such emails, on behalf of a range of causes.  However, to keep the lollipop crossing patrols, those Councillors will be forced to hit other services, and it is important that we make sure that we will not be cutting services that are more important still.  It is a matter, not of absolute, but of relative value.   At this point, nothing is guaranteed, apart maybe from those services which the County Council is legally required to undertake, such as the care of looked-after children.

All We Can Do Is...
In 2010, voters elected a government which has decided to slash council spending.  What we are witnessing, consequently, is the wholescale (and probably permanent) restructuring and reduction of ‘local government’.  My personal belief is that we need to hang on to as much as we can, make the necessary savings as painlessly and sympathetically as possible in line with the wishes of local people and, wherever possible, explore alternative ways of delivering those services we regard as essential within our communities.

Within that larger picture, however, I have noted with sympathy your wish that children’s safety on the way to school might be a priority issue.

Please feel free to get back to me if you wish to discuss this matter further.


John D Clare

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