On Friday, there is a full meeting of West Sussex County Council. It is arguably the most important meeting of the year because the budget for the next 12 months will be debated and agreed.
This week I have been writing my speech and as I write it I have been reflecting on what the Council has achieved.
Three years ago we agreed a three year savings plan which identified £79 million pounds of savings from the Council’s budget. It was a big challenge and we had to make some very difficult decisions.
At the time there were calls from the Opposition party to raid savings in order not to make some difficult decisions. That would have jeopardised the Council’s financial standing, and certainly we would never have been able to use our reserves like we did to help with the serious flooding in 2012-13 or fund Operation Watershed. Reserves are partly for – excuse the pun - a rainy day and considering the weather, it is very important to have that money to help our residents in an emergency.
As the Government continues to bear down on public spending, once again we have to look for further savings. This time it becomes harder still.
There are many more financial uncertainties for the County Council in the next 4 years and therefore we have focused on making savings of £55 million pounds over the next 2 years, which will be part of Friday’s budget proposal.
The County Council is moving to a Commissioning Council model and in doing so we have focused on 3 key priorities; Start of Life, Economy and Later Life. We’ve done this in order to be very clear about the outcomes we want to achieve for our residents.
Underling these priorities are some key principles.
• We will be there in an emergency.
• We will help residents and communities to help themselves.
• We continue to care and safeguard our very weak and vulnerable
• We will minimise the burden to taxpayers.
I describe the County Council as a traditional Conservative Council and the 3 key priorities and our principles demonstrates that, but there is one achievement that stands out more than any other – for the fourth year in a row we are proposing no Council Tax increase for our residents.
I am very aware that, for the majority of households, incomes have not increased for some time, yet the household bills such as food and energy have risen dramatically.
Our part in helping with the strain of the rising cost of living faced by our residents is not to subject them to additional increases from us from our Council Tax bill. To do that we have taken the Government’s incentive once again in order to help our residents.
Over the last 3 years we have really kept a tight control of the finances and we have had underspends as a result. These have not been tucked away in reserves. We are investing back to our communities so they can have the benefit. After all, it is the taxpayers’ money in the first place.
That is why we will be announcing in the budget that we will be investing more than we are saving in the next year, spending our money where our residents want and need it most.
So on Friday, in presenting the budget, I will announce 10 key areas of investment, including a £15 million pound investment in improving more rural and urban roads across the County, on top of what the County Council does every year as part of its roads maintenance programme, a £12 million investment in education in Worthing, including a new secondary school and additional school places, and a £6.25 million injection into social care for adults.
I will also ask full council to agree a further £3.3 million investment in the County Council’s Think Family programme to support West Sussex’s most troubled families who need additional support to ensure that their children grow up with the best possible start in life.
We are also planning to make a further £1 million available to encourage communities to act against flooding as part of Operation Watershed 2014 and will also ask council to approve £1.25 million improvements to Queen’s Square in Crawley.
Last year’s Be the Business scheme – where we offered new, start up and existing businesses the chance to bid for funding - was so successful we are planning on doing it again this year by offering another £500,000 in grants.
So there’s lots of good news in our budget.
We will continue over the coming years to bear down on costs and to get the very best outcome for our residents at the best price for the taxpayer.
That’s our commitment. We need to find savings but being there for the weak, the vulnerable and those who do not have the best start in life is what matters to us. It’s those ideals that are very high on the priority list for the County Council, along with Safeguarding, and there is nothing wrong or immoral in making sure that every penny spent in those areas represents really good value for money. A simple principle that is often forgotten – but never at this County Council.
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