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Cllr Mike Dixey gives the Lib Dem response to CCC Budget

February 23, 2017 9:00 PM

Extracts from Mike's response at this weeks full council budget debate:

Michael DixeyThis is a horrible, horrible budget - it's all about cuts, cuts and more cuts.

I don't think that any of us here tonight stood for election to this council so that we could slash public services - but this is what we are doing here tonight.

And we have little choice.

As we all know, this Conservative government is cutting council grants by around 60% - more than any other government department by far. So, we are having to do the government's dirty work for them. And I see little evidence of you and your fellow Conservative councils protesting and lobbying government against these draconian cuts. I do hope you are doing it behind the scenes for, until you do so, this misery will continue. Ironically, the Audit Commission, before it was abolished, showed time and time again that local government was far more efficient at delivering services than central government. Yet Whitehall has emerged relatively unscathed from these cut-backs, when compared with local government.

Tonight, our group is not going to put forward an alternative budget - but rather address your response to these draconian cuts. And your response is the proposed merger of the East Kent district councils - originally five councils, but now four, as Ashford have seen the light. The merger is all about saving money - not about democracy.

The title of the consultant's report is the give-away. It is:

"A business case for the potential creation of a single new council from the four East Kent coastal districts"

The consultants did what they were asked to do - they put forward the financial case for a merger. They did what they were paid to do, and these consultants were handsomely paid. As the saying goes: "he who pays the piper, calls the tune".

As many of you will know, I am a management consultant, and I currently work for some of the UK's leading companies. I have written numerous reports, corporate plans, business plans, development plans, etc. If asked, I could write a report on the business case for NOT merging. And there are many, very many reasons as far as Canterbury is concerned. I'm not sure how many of you will have studied the report in full - ploughing through all the 'consultants' speak, and the 'mother-hood and apple pie' statements - such as "creating a single political vision" (page 8) or "a constant focus on delivering value for money" (page 13). What do they think we are doing at the moment?

Some of the claims in it are clearly rubbish. For example, "The continued growth and success of Canterbury is very much tied up with and dependant on the other three districts" (page 24). No evidence is given to support this sweeping statement, and I would suggest that the districts to our West and South are far more important to our economic growth and success than those to our East. There is more wishful thinking on page 15, when it suggests that the new council would have an influence on Higher Education and Further Education. We all know what KCC's response would be to that. Other examples which they give of powers being devolved by KCC are street furniture and verge cutting. Get serious, consultants, get serious!

Another claim on page 27 is that the new council could exploit renewable energy for an income stream with "further exploitation and development of off-shore capability". This shows a complete lack of understanding of the industry. And the claim, again on page 27, is that the new council could promote the expansion of Dover Harbour. It is just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Maybe these claims reflect the consultants' lack of understanding of the real world outside local government. And it is quite clear also from reading the report that it was drafted before Ashford pulled out, i.e. when there were two financially strong councils and three struggling councils.
It was very hastily revised when Ashford decided that it wasn't for them. Now it is one financially strong council merging with three strugglers.

To demonstrate just how big the difference between us and them is:

Canterbury's income from our property portfolio is £4.7 million per annum. This is three times the combined total of the other three councils And the same applies to income from car parking. Our income dwarfs theirs. When the government's grant is completely phased out, which it will be, and when the New Homes Bonus is finished, property and car parking income will be our two major sources of revenue - other than Council Tax and business rates.
So, it is blindly obvious, that Canterbury will end up subsidising the other three councils. Is this what you guys really want - as there are no proposals to ring-fence Canterbury's income streams? The report dismisses more joint working or a shared management structure as alternatives to a full-blown merger. Yet, the four examples of shared management structures for district councils given on page 44 of the report, show that these yielding savings of over 12% - very similar to those predicted for the merger.

There are areas crying out for more joint working or a joint management approach, such as an East Kent Local Plan, but this would have to include Ashford. The consultants do concede on page 43 that there is a real risk that the government will take the projected savings into account and further reduce their grants to the new council.

Professor Dick Scase, UKC's business expert, whose advice this council has often sought, was quoted in the Gazette as saying that an East Kent merger wasn't the solution, as the needs of Thanet, Dover and Shepway are so very different from those of Canterbury. We would be very foolish to ignore our own management expert. And John Simmonds, County Councillor for Whitstable and Deputy Leader of KCC with portfolio responsibility for finance has accused this council of "deliberating scare-mongering" about budget cuts to advance the case for a merger. And, as with all mergers, the devil is in the detail. And the detail is horrendous. There has never been a merger of three district councils - let alone four. And I haven't mentioned the civic team, or the possibility that the council's head office could be in Thanet, or the number of councillors would be reduced by two thirds, or that it would almost certainly result in an increase in the council tax.

A merger is no cure for our financial difficulties, and it is no good for democracy.