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Commissioner's bulletin October 2015
This is my latest bulletin on our work as Commissioners to help Rotherham MBC to recover and restore its democratic leadership and accountability.
Setting a Budget for Next Year and Beyond
The Government believes it has a mandate to radically remodel public finances in what the Treasury calls ‘fiscal consolidation’.
Alongside most other public services, this means that we have to anticipate less grant each year for at least the next 3 years.
The dilemma in Rotherham is that our determined attempts to improve our services to children in care and those at risk means that we need to spend considerably more. We have needed more staff, better paid (at least social workers paid the same as in Barnsley, Sheffield and Doncaster) and additional support systems and a new IT system.
All of these add millions to the costs of our Children’s Services operation. We also have now got a better handle on the cost of looking after children who are away from their parents where in the past we have taken an overoptimistic view of both the numbers likely to remain in care and the cost of looking after them.
Together these pressures add in some £12m of additional budget demand for 2016/17 which coupled with the anticipated £12m reduction in grant means that the budget challenge for Rotherham is twice that of any other comparable unitary authority.
This is sufficiently serious for us to have entered into discussions with Government about whether or not we can be granted any ‘flexibilities’ which would enable us to use local money differently and ensure that we can set a budget for the year beginning the 1st April 2016, without doing a lot of damage to other services. We are particularly keen to protect as far as we can services operating under the heading of ‘Adult Social Care’. These services need to be modernised and made more sensitive to individual’s needs and aspirations but also needs sufficient time to enable such change to be handled well.
As readers might know, to all available to a local authority in setting its budget are limited. We cannot set our own council tax above a Government prescribed limit which is normally around the rate of inflation. We can use reserves to a limited extent, but obviously reserves get used up and this is not a recipe for a successful future. We can increase charges but there are not many charges where this is relevant in Rotherham. Other areas of the country might have more buoyant street car parking or off road car parking systems where a modest increase in charges might yield considerable income, but in Rotherham we have the reverse.
Over-optimistic assumptions about car parking income now mean that we actually have a deficit against some income projections in the Council.
We do get some mild advantage if our business rate income leaps up but the local economy, though doing OK is not running so hot that we can reasonably expect much by way of extra reward from such a source. We may get a modest extra grant from the Government based upon the number of new houses, and houses returned to use that we can report on.
This therefore leads to a series of inevitable and painful discussions about what we need to cut. Quite a lot of this has to be about reducing the number of people employed by the Council. We have already said that it is likely to be 200 redundancies, but at the moment this is a figure which could go up.The Council will want to work as closely as possible with its partners – many of whom will have their own budget challenges.
For the avoidance of doubt, I should be clear that only Councillors can set a legal budget for the Council. This is not a power given to Commissioners though obviously Commissioners, the Council Senior Staff Team and Councillors are working closely to examine all options.
The New Vision for the Council
The Council has a new Leader, Councillor Chris Read supported by a new Deputy Leader, Councillor Gordon Watson and together with other colleagues they have set about defining a new Vision for the Council. This also involves some thinking about a Vision for Rotherham place and this is a discussion that they want to have with other partners later this year.
Such a statement needs to reflect Rotherham’s particular characteristics, its potential and its particular challenges and I expect Councillor Read to want to announce his thinking by the end of October.
This will help us settle on longer-term plans because obviously the Vision is a starting point to how we determine budget priorities, performance management and other work priorities over the next few years.
Linked to above, we had 27 roadshows over the summer meeting a whole variety of people and further events at the Rotherham Show where hundreds more got the chance to talk to us about their priorities. Overall some 1800 people participated. A report on the outcomes of this consultation will be published on the 16th October and placed on the Council’s website.
We have begun on planning those cases that need to be reviewed and all the other matters that represent the operation or roll-out of the new taxi licensing requirements. We are totally confident that this will lead to a cohort of well-motivated, accredited drivers in safer vehicles with a better collective reputation.
Demonstrations in Rotherham Town Centre
We have had demonstrations, some under the banner of right wing groups at irregular intervals over the last 12 months. Commissioners, Councillors and other local representatives have condemned these demonstrations as the causes for which they claim to be advocated are not causes that we recognise and therefore this so called demonstration of free speech is not relevant.
We have made representations to the Home Secretary who alone has the power to ban any particular march but can only do so in certain defined circumstances and upon an application from South Yorkshire Police.
The Police have been vigilant in pro-actively policing any such demonstrations but this is not a good use of their scarce resources.
Operation Clover is the name of the operation whereby ‘non-recent’ crimes of child sexual exploitation have been investigated by South Yorkshire Police. The first major trial involving alleges takes place in early December. Its suspects are due to be on trial and there is likely to be a national media interest.
Advertisements have now been placed for the recruitment of a new Chief Executive, Strategic Director for Adult Social Care and Housing, Assistant Chief Executive (Performance & Policy) and an Assistant Director for Legal Services.
Next month we will be advertising for four more senior posts – a Strategic Director for Finance and Customer Services, an Assistant Director for Community Safety and two further Assistant Directors for Strategic Commissioning and Independent Living and Support.
In addition of these eight new senior colleagues the Council will be much stronger and better equipped for the future.
We also have to wish farewell to Karl Battersby, who has advised that he has an offer of another job at Wigan Council. Karl has been stalwart supporter of the change programme in the Council as our existing Strategic Director for Environment and Development Services and he will be missed. The vacancy that his departure creates will be advertised in late October and we hope to hold interviews in January 2016.