Ever since being elected last May, I have repeatedly asked the Conservative administration at Somerset County Council what it is doing to seek redress in the huge imbalance between the levels of public funding given to urban and rural communities. Urban councils receive 50% more government grant per head than local authorities in rural areas despite the fact that rural residents pay an average of £100 each more in Council Tax. I have yet to receive any sort of answer beyond that our Conservative councillors ‘press our case hard’ when they speak privately with their Conservative colleagues in Government. This, by its nature, is impossible to verify and if true demonstrates that these councillors are not very good at fighting our corner because they have achieved precious little.
I have brought to the attention of the County Council the existence of the Parliamentary campaign called ‘Rural Fair Shares’ and asked what the administration is doing to support it. Again, the answer appears to be precisely nothing. Belatedly we are now seeing the County Council mount a campaign to receive ‘Fairer Funding for Somerset’ but only in respect of flooding. Why do they call only for fair funding for flood defences? What about everything else? Somerset County Council’s reticence to swing behind such campaigns as Rural Fair Shares is seriously detrimental to the interests of Somerset residents.
We’re constantly being told by the administration at Somerset County Council that their unpopular cuts are necessitated by the significant reduction in funding received from Government. But their failure to fight for fairer funding suggests that they are in fact quite content to receive reduced funding, that they are of the Cameron/Osborne school of thought that a smaller Council able to provide fewer services is a good thing. It was last November, during his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet that Cameron let the cat out of the bag; his austerity plan was not motivated by the need to reduce the Government’s spending deficit but will continue on beyond the point when the deficit is eliminated, because, in his view, Government should do less. Permanently. Regardless of the state of the public finances.
Now this is a perfectly proper intellectual position but it is not one that any political party has put before the electorate and I doubt that the Conservatives would have retained their fragile control over Somerset County Council last year had their campaign literature set out what now appears apparent; that they are perfectly happy to receive less funding than their urban counterparts and will do nothing to either redress that disparity or otherwise resist the Government’s spending cuts. And remember, we are not talking about paltry sums here. In the last 4 years, Somerset County Council has lost around £100m of its budget and current indications are that we will lose a similar figure over the next four years. Already, severe signs of stress are evident in many service areas. Our highways are a mess, plagued by potholes and local flooding due to reduced maintenance schedules, flytipping is endemic due to recycling site closures and, most worrying, Somerset’s children’s services have again been rated as ‘Inadequate’ And this is before another £100m disappears from the budget. So when John Osman and Co. serve up the next batch of cuts to Council services on 19th February don’t be taken in by their crocodile tears; it is becoming increasingly clear that a tiny ‘rump’ Council providing the absolute bare minimum is their goal. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong by seeing them mount a concerted campaign to resist the Government’s unfair funding formulae but I’m not holding my breath.