Friday, 2 January 2015

Our KCC councillor’s end of year blog

Our KCC member for Hythe, Martin Whybrow, sends his end of year update, a year dominated by cuts, with plenty more to come. However, amid the gloom, there was progress with a number of local campaigns and a great surge in Green Party membership.

 Cuts upon cuts

While 2014 was pretty grim at County Hall, it is hard not to conclude that 2015 will be that much worse. The ‘transformation agenda’ – in other words, somehow trying to make the cuts imposed by central government – is in full swing, with a heavy commissioning aspect to it. The axe has recently been lifted from the county’s community wardens but, of course, there is the question of what is next, as the austerity cuts into front line services.

For a single opposition councillor such as myself, a key role is to communicate with residents, scrutinise the decisions, try to influence the prioritisation (particularly within a council such as KCC which is pro-business at all costs and often associates this with large-scale road building projects), give voice to Green Party beliefs and policies, and try to highlight the worst decisions.

A lot of the savings are false ones, as has already been shown in areas such as youth services and children’s centres. Meanwhile, this government has taken to playing cat and mouse with local authority funding, dangling it out of reach or moving it from one place to another and spinning it as new. This is the case with the £17 million promised by central government for flood defences in Kent but with the caveat that it won’t be available unless matched by the council, as though KCC or any other council for that matter has that amount lying around in this era.

Austerity bites… and then bites again

For a staid body such as the Local Government Association to come up with an illustration of future spending that it touts as ‘the graph of doom’ is telling ( Austerity on top of austerity means the consequences will hit ever more people, ever harder, combined with yet more job losses in the public sector. 2015 could well see the first council’s fail to provide statutory services. Don’t forget, government funding for local councils will be 40 per cent lower by May than it was in 2010, with a further 13 per cent to be cut in 2015 and with no end in sight after this.

The quest to meet the budget targets at KCC is playing out in a particularly worrying way at present. Buried away within a 200 page tome for a KCC cabinet meeting was the revelation that if it doesn’t meet its overall budget targets for 2014 then it is intending to grab any under-spend from the Kent Support & Assistance Service (KSAS) as a top-up. In a nutshell, KSAS is meant to provide help to Kent’s most impoverished residents and, having had this provided for two years by central government, Kent looks likely to have £2.691 million left over. This was initially touted as allowing KCC to extend the service as (typically) central government looks likely to pull the funding. I highlighted the issue and am applying pressure to try to ensure the decision is reversed.

It is hardly as though there isn’t the need. Any economic recovery is leaving behind large swathes of people and it is worrying as I circulate with residents and with voluntary groups and service providers to find common messages about the ever increasing number of people who are struggling. I am pleased to have been able to help the launch of the Shepway Food Bank but, of course, it is a damning indictment of our society that this is needed. At present, the Rainbow Centre’s Winter Shelter is in full swing, with all beds filled each evening.

Benefits cuts, sanctioning, zero hour contracts, public sector wage freezes, a chronic lack of social and affordable housing, the impact of the cuts on public services… certainly it is clear which parts of our society have been hardest hit by this government’s ideologically driven policies. And I find no area more worrying than social services, with legislative changes (the Social Care Act) and increasing demand combining with the budget cuts bringing the potential to cause the perfect storm.

What about the environment?

Meanwhile, KCC is currently coming up with its latest mission statement. It was disappointing but no surprise to find nothing of note on protecting Kent’s environment, countering climate crisis, reversing our biodiversity disaster, improving air quality, protecting our water supplies or making communities more resilient and sustainable.

I was pleased to be on hand when a 38 Degrees petition to ‘Keep Kent Frack-Free’, signed by more than 2800 local residents, was presented to David Brazier, cabinet member for transport and environment, on the steps of County Hall in November. It has triggered a debate in the next Transport and Environment Committee meeting but one issue is that local authorities have no legal power to make decisions related to fracking, bar on a case by case basis through the tightly controlled planning application process. Central government is keen to lay down the red carpet for the oil and gas companies and their backers, so doesn’t want county, district or parish councils in the way.

The topic of devolution in England has been rife in the last quarter of the year, with the County Councils Network among those weighing in, calling for much greater choice related to council tax and business rates, budgets (including removing ring-fencing) and services. However, Whitehall relinquishing power, whatever the shape of next year’s government, is hard to imagine.

I’ve spoken in full council and committees and written on many of the above topics. Of late, I’ve also led the call for greater transparency, after details about members’ attendance at meetings were arbitrarily removed from the KCC website.

Local issues and projects

I’ve also worked hard on lots of local issues, with this taking at least half of my time. I grabbed the chance for Hythe to pilot a road safety scheme, finally secured the 20 mph limit for School Road in Saltwood, helped residents with their traffic concerns, from West Hythe Road to the west, Seabrook to the east, and Elham to the north. And Hythe now has its own Speedwatch equipment for residents to use. After a lot of perseverance, I’ve also finally secured a paid-for study to assess and propose remedial action for long-standing flooding issues in Hythe.

I’ve also been working with the Hythe Town Team group of traders on a number of projects to try to boost trade and also with local schools on other projects, including at Brockhill School related to their farm education programme for primary schools and to try to extend funding for an excellent project run by local schools to support children at risk of being excluded.

I’ve also been pleased to be able to support a number of local arts projects, including JimJam Art’s Happiness Bank which brought a lot of smiles to Folkestone in February, Leigh Mullay’s terrific herring gull mural in Folkestone, and Hart’s inaugural exhibition of work by Hythe and Romney Marsh artists at the Tin Tabernacle in Hythe in December.

Other reasons to be cheerful

Other reasons to be cheerful? Well, Shepway Green Party has mirrored county and country trends with a doubling in members during the year. We’ve more and more youngsters joining us and it was great to launch Shepway Young Greens during the year and to have the chair of the group, 19 year-old Jasmine Heywood, as a by-election candidate in October. She will be among our great roster of candidates for the local elections in May, when I am sure that we will gain additional breakthroughs here in Shepway, as we provided the enlightened and energetic option to the traditional parties.

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