At the Cabinet meeting of East Sussex County Council (ESCC) held on 17 July, councillors resolved to agree the development of a ‘Core Offer’ in line with a report produced by Chief Officer Becky Shaw entitled Reconciling Policy, Performance and Resources – State of the County. The report states bluntly that, in view of its current and foreseeable financial resources over the next three years, ESCC ‘will not be able to maintain a comprehensive offer of universal services to all residents’. Rather, under the ‘Core Offer’, the council is to ‘concentrate services on those in most urgent need’.

But only 17% of the council’s annual expenditure is spent on the universal services that we take for granted: maintenance of highways and street lighting, dealing with household waste, provision of library and other cultural resources, managing concessionary transport, levering external funding for projects in the economy etc.  These elements of provision have been experiencing cutbacks for a decade of austerity as the flow of funding from central government has steadily reduced. ESCC say they have made savings of £129m since 2010. On the other hand, 64% of the council’s net revenue last year was spent on children’s services and adult social care. And the costs of these are forecast to rise relentlessly in the years to come as a result of ongoing social and demographic changes – more children, more SEND children, an increase in families experiencing financial difficulties, more over-65s (the proportion of people aged over 65 in East Sussex is 25.6% compared to 18% in England as a whole, and going up), more over-85s. As Ms Shaw declared in her report: ‘Our demographic means that we have already had to make choices that others are only just beginning to face in order to meet the needs of our vulnerable elderly people, whilst continuing to provide a basic level of service to the rest of our population’.

The ‘Core Offer’ is now being further defined and costed within each council department, so that detailed plans can be put forward at the next Cabinet meeting in October for determining both financial plans and service reviews over the next three years. But while substantially more money is due to be pumped into the National Health Service from central government over the next five years, there is nothing extra offered for social care. Yes, councils have been allowed to raise revenue at local level from an additional tax levy. But ESCC council tax rates are already the fifth highest of any county authority in England, according to Ms Shaw, and business rate growth is flat.

It’s a scenario that cries out for some major political intervention, some fundamental changes of policy in Westminster and Whitehall, before it explodes. But with all  political and administrative energies there being concentrated on Brexit negotiations, who is going to listen? It’s noteworthy that the last minister for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, was rewarded for his success in turning off the funding tap for local councils over the last two years by being elevated to Home Secretary when Amber Rudd resigned. Mrs May can only have approved.

What seems more likely to happen than any renewed flow of funding is a re-definition of what councils are required to deliver. Ms Shaw complained in her report  that ‘the £8m we are obliged to spend on concessionary fares for old people would provide care packages to allow 700 of the most vulnerable people in this group to continue to live independently’. ESCC say they will lobby for removal of requirements ‘that would not be our highest priorities if we were able to target our resources at areas of greatest need’.

So that’s going to be the battleground: who needs it the most? And, as Rebecca Whippy indicates in her article alongside concerning the council’s duty of care to disabled children, you may need a lawyer to get what you used to regard as safe-guarded provision for you or your nearest and dearest.

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