It is important remember that whilst overall Government spending has gone down in recent years, certain budgets have seen their funding maintained or even increased. Without exception these are the budgets that make a real difference to people’s lives, particularly the NHS.
The decision to focus protection for spending cuts on budgets supporting those in the greatest need has meant that some parts of Government have faced challenges. This includes Local Government. The previous administration at Cornwall Council instigated a savings plan based on new more efficient ways of working, which did succeed in protecting the parts of the Council’s budget that serves those in need – adult social care being a key example. The new Cabinet at the Council are now setting out their approach to the financial challenge the Council faces.
While I welcome their public engagement, it is important that the Council is open and transparent about the scale of the challenge it faces, whilst also recognising the other side of the coin, namely the new opportunities now available to Cornwall Council.
A particularly exciting opportunity has been presented through Government giving Cornwall Council more control of revenue produced by the Duchy, including business rates, and the power to take decisions that will increase that revenue in future. This new ability to take decisions that will help local businesses to grow is being supported by funding, including £592 million of EU funds now controlled from Cornwall by the LEP.
The Council needs to publicly explore these opportunities more, and be clearer about how they are making their predictions about future funding cuts. A lack of such clarity can lead to inaccuracies.
An example of this can be found in what Cllr Alex Folkes, Cabinet Member for Finance, has been saying about the Rural Fair Funding campaign. This campaign, which I have supported in Parliament since its inception, highlights a long standing disparity between funding given to rural and urban Councils. Cllr Folkes has been saying that Cornwall suffers greatly from this disparity, having £100 less to spend per head than an urban council. The problem is that this £100 figure is not Cornwall specific, it is an average for all rural Councils. The campaign’s own figures show that Cornwall’s spend per head is actually £43 less than the average urban Council. Whilst this is still a real problem, Cornwall has more to spend per head than most other rural Councils, and indeed more than Plymouth Council. Furthermore in February this year, responding to the concerns colleagues and I raised regarding urban/rural disparities, the Government promised to review the current situation and do more to support rural Councils.
It is unfortunate that Cllr Folkes has made the situation look worse than it is through the inaccurate use of generalised figures rather than Cornwall specific ones.
I very much hope that Cllr Folkes and his colleagues will make budget decisions based on solid facts with the aim of ensuring that the most vulnerable in our community continue to receive the support they need.