The following was submitted as the formal response of West Berkshire UNISON, formulated by a working group.
West Berkshire Local Government UNISON is extremely concerned by, and strongly opposed to, proposals regarding the West Berkshire Council Revenue Budget for 2017/18.
The reasons for our concern and our opposition are set out below.
UNISON recognises that the financial position of the council has been exacerbated by decisions made by central government. We further recognise that the real consequences of cuts emanating from national decisions are felt exclusively at local level.
However, the precarious and impoverished state of our finances has been compounded by a repeated refusal to countenance modest Council Tax rises in line with the vast majority of other local authorities.
The council’s Conservative administration has mirrored the course of austerity laid out by their party in Westminster. It’s now starkly evident that we do not reap the rewards of any special treatment as a result, but are treated with precisely the same contempt as the rest of local government.
The refusal to question and fight austerity economics in West Berkshire has led instead to the diminishment of our public services by those that were trusted to safeguard them.
West Berkshire Council has been materially disadvantaged by its own inaction. Meanwhile authorities who had the fortitude and foresight to implement Council Tax raises earlier to protect services local people rely upon have been insulated from the worst of the latest cuts.
Had the council increased Council Tax by a modest 2% per year since 2011 it would now be a total of £6.7m better off. The base for any future percentage increases would also be commensurately higher.
The latest proposals therefore again contain cuts that could have been less severe, or that fall in areas that may not have been otherwise affected.
Some £7m of the overall £8m shortfall is to be found from “back office functions”. Whilst the presumption is that the public have no interest in how these “invisible savings” are achieved, the quality of remaining services, if not their provision, will inevitably suffer as the working conditions of staff deteriorate and the demands upon them increase.
UNISON carried out a survey of all staff (half of those who responded were not union members) in response to the decision to reduce the staff redundancy multiplier.
The survey took place before the latest round of budget proposals were finalised.
The responses paint a picture of a workforce undermined, unappreciated and overworked.
Further cuts to services therefore take place against a backdrop of staff cynicism about councillors having their interests at heart, with support for those most in need being diminished. This creates a culture of pessimism, organisational lethargy and fear which have a further detrimental effect on morale and ultimately productivity.
There is a widespread perception that savings are made in the realms of theory, with the practical work of officers either remaining unchanged or even exponentially increasing as they are expected to continue to deliver services at the same level with reduced budgets. More than once anecdotal stories have surfaced of elected members querying why work has not been completed after they personally voted in favour of curtailing or ceasing funding to support the services responsible.
Training budgets (essential for the replacement of skills lost through redundancies) are being squeezed with many requests for training already being deferred or denied. Some vacancies are already proving difficult to recruit into given the widening gap with private sector wages, and the lack of opportunity for personal and career development only exacerbates this.
Meanwhile, year-on-year, real terms cuts to wages continue to persist.
Further still, adding insult to injury, officers are also expected to participate in a meaningless performance management scoring process. This is particularly demeaning for those staff that achieve high scores, as it illustrates the fact that there is no tangible or meaningful reward for their work. Those staff that are subject to capability measures are affected no more or less than under pre-existing processes. As a result, we have a performance management procedure which does not improve poor performance and does not reward good performance. In fact, it effectively serves as a disincentive for ambition, as well as being a divisive measure that makes staff further feel they are being scrutinised, distrusted and underappreciated by councillors.
As noted previously, this comes at a time when councillors are enjoying a 16.5% increase in their allowances across the board, rewarded regardless of their performance and in some cases regardless of whether they have fulfilled basic expectations that are commensurate with their functions, such as attendance at meetings.
Previously, the rationale for refusing to raise Council Tax has been based on the idea that a percentage increase damages the finances of the poorest disproportionately. Whilst this has a certain superficial logic, the council has historically offered a Council Tax Reduction scheme to assist the most needy in meeting their obligations and to cushion them from increases.
UNISON notes that a series of proposals have been put out for consultation that will withdraw support to the reduction scheme (http://info.westberks.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=33404 ). These have been suggested outside of this round of budget proposals for reasons which are unclear. Uncharitably, it could be said to have been presented separately to avoid attention at a time when larger headline savings are being mooted.
All of the proposals to reduce the scope of the scheme will, in real terms, represent an increase in taxation liability for some of the poorest in the district regardless of a formal increase.
It’s therefore entirely disingenuous to claim that a lack of appetite for taxation increases is based on concern for the poor, when support is being simultaneously withdrawn that assists the most needy in paying their existing bills.
The authority’s own stated aims and priorities for improvement for the period 2015 – 2019 are set out in its Council Strategy (see http://info.westberks.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=34790&p=0 ).
Of the proposed cuts, almost all can be matched against an aim, a priority or both. This is strategically incoherent.
By way of example:
Better educated communities – whilst the thrust of the council strategy focusses on school improvement, education of our communities takes place in many ways through many channels. It’s notable that the stated aim is not “better schools” despite the subsequent phrasing in the strategy.
It’s hard to see how withdrawing vital support for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau which provides key assistance with understanding rights, responsibilities and benefits for residents can contribute to them being better-educated in any way, especially when they can no longer rely upon the council to provide assistance with many matters.
Road safety education in schools is also being proposed to be reduced or removed altogether. This again is at odds with providing better education in an area which can provide life-saving information, and save money overall by raising the standard of our young road users.
A stronger local economy – raising parking charges can only be seen as a disincentive for local commerce, especially in the face of competition from other major retail centres within reasonable distance.
Maintain a high quality of life in our communities – it’s again difficult to understand how quality of life is maintained where vegetation is allowed to grow in our urban areas, giving an overall impression of neglect, creating litter traps, and in turn contributing to crime and anti-social behaviour, or in our rural areas where reductions to the budget for road surfacing and drainage will hit hardest.
Protect and support those who need it - cutting support for home to school transport for students with special educational needs is entirely inconsistent with this aim. We note that there is no suggestion that the contribution from parents/guardians is in any way means-tested, which seems tacit acceptance of the fact that most would fall under any reasonable threshold. As mentioned above, the proposed withdrawal of support to the Council Tax reduction scheme is also incongruous with this aim.
The council is currently plastering over cracks in a rearguard battle to protect an ever-diminishing roster of services offered to local people. All of the measures introduced to date have been reactionary, forced to adapt to circumstance with no clear measures to mitigate further cuts or stand up to central government.
Successfully navigating the latest budget reductions will be rewarded with further demands for savings.
Failure will be rewarded with functions being removed from local democratic control entirely.
What happens in the event of unforeseen events such as severe weather, new statutory responsibilities, inspection failures or insurance claims? What if there are further judicial reviews called as we struggle to meet even our statutory duties? How are these to be paid for? What happens if the mooted “windfall” from redistributed business rates doesn’t materialise?
Much has been said of the “West Berkshire Way”, historically an informal, fraternal, dispassionate and common-sense approach to overcoming difficulties that included staff, management, unions and elected members. Since the political will to stand up and fight for our services has diminished, so has the will and appetite of other stakeholders to preserve this compact. It’s increasingly clear that sacrifices on behalf of staff and forbearance of unions has not been matched by the moral imperative by councillors to differ with their party in government on behalf of the people that elected them.