ESSEX has been leading the way in becoming leaner and more effective as the Government forces county councils across the country to slash costs.
That’s the claim of one of the county’s most influential councillors, David Finch, who has celebrated a year as leader of Essex County Council.
He says councillors and officials have managed to deliver the range of services expected of them, while cutting their budget by almost half a billion pounds during the austerity programme.
And he insists other authorities around the country have noted, with jealousy, the way Essex has coped, and want to follow suit.
Mr Finch, who started in local politics 19 years ago, said: “We knewwe had a job to do in terms of the Government’s austerity programme and we have seen grant reductions.
“We know to compensate for that we had to find savings within our own authority.
“We had, before May, saved the best part of £300million, through finding better ways of doing things and better procurement, and now we will have saved nearly half a billion pounds.
“My challenge is we are not cutting services, we are reforming and reshaping services to fit the financial envelope.
“Our ambition and our goal is to make sure, as best we can, we will deliver those services to the residents. I think we have been successful up until now.
“For example, the youth service grant was significantly reduced by about £12million over last year and this year. But we have worked with the youth service to make sure the provisions they needed were there.
“Through the budget process this year, we have put an extra £1million into the fixtures and fittings for the youth service.
“It goes to the heart of being innovative and doing things differently, but still delivering the same services needed.”
WE have set a budget for the fourth year running with a zero council tax increase. We’ve put additional money in the budget – another £4.8million into highways for road maintenance, £12million into additional road maintenance, £500,000 into apprenticeship schemes, £1million into the youth service and £1.4million into vulnerable adults.
WE have put £3million into remedial flood work to unblock drains and put in new pipes. We were the only county to put that sizeable sum of money to respond to the flooding. We have put money to support Tendring with its flooding and its marina development as part of the economic growth agenda, and in the north of the county, we lobbied the Environment Agency to put a £4million scheme in there.
INEVITABLY, when you look at new ways of working and greater efficiencies, you find you can be leaner.
We are a responsible authority. If people wanted to be retrained, we did it; if people wanted to leave of their own accord, we haven’t replaced; and if people wanted voluntary redundancy, we allowed that.
We are a caring organisation – we care about our people. We have 8,000 staff – four years ago we had between 8,500 and 9,000 staff. And 99.9 per cent of people work here because they want to make a difference.
WE are looking at how we can do things differently to deliver services, rather than being labelled as a cost-cutting and service-cutting organisation. That’s not the name of the game for us at Essex County Council.
WE have set up a Skills Board that is probably the best in the country and that Vince Cable said was better than the national Skills Board. We have worked with district colleagues with economic plans across Essex. Our Neet – young people Not in Education, Employment, or Training – is probably the lowest in the country at 4.6 per cent. There are ten per cent more schools in a “good” and “outstanding” category than there were a year or two years ago.
WE conducted two pilot schemes and we evaluated those risks. Twenty per cent of the lights are left on in accident blackspots, for the night-time economy, and roundabouts, and we work closely with the police so lights come on where there have been incidents. I live in a rural area. There are no pavements and no street lights – if I go outside my house, I carry a torch. We need a bit of realism. Each light is individually controlled, and it’s a contributor to the savings we need to make.
If the police are supportive, we could, for example, turn on one light in three. There may be a fear of crime, but it’s a perception. That apprehension is perfectly normal. But the reality is Essex is one of the safest counties in the country. There is great work being done by our police. Inevitably you’re going to get incidents, but we are safe compared to other counties. People need to take comfort from that, I think.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
THE economy is improving. We have seen more people in employment, and more housebuilding nationally and within the county.
And although I think there is still a long road to walk down, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The challenge for us should always be that we develop and deliver value for money in everything we do. Are we doing it in the most efficient way? And are we delivering it at the lowest cost?
Future of the bus service In some cases, we are paying a subsidy of £13.33 per traveller. We need to think smarter about that.
If we thought about how to deliver bus services and travel in a different way, we could probably still deliver what needs to be delivered for the majority of the people, but at a lower cost. I don’t see an end point in challenging ourselves or our creativity.