Last Friday I had the dubious pleasure of watching a live stream debate from Lincolnshire County Council. You may be asking yourself why I would submit myself to the tedious in jokes that one councillor has a lot of questions, the regular occasions of silence as councillors turn away from their microphones so no one can hear them and disheartening view of so many empty seats.
Well I was watching as this was the meeting where the council was agreeing to their budget for the next year. A one year budget (no long term planning), an election year budget (an electoral tool as good as any) and a ground-breaking budget that was going to see an over 3% increase in your council tax.
This budget can be characterised quite succinctly as Cllr. Parker did. “Pay more, get less” Your council tax will go up put the services provided will go down. The additional services that you will need to pay for will increase but the quality of those services will go down. The private sector contracts that are commissioned will be of lower quality, but the council will have to pay more for them.
Lincolnshire is having an existential crisis at the moment. Unitary or District, Mayor or non-mayor, devolved government or central government. Cllr. Hill admitted that support and guarantees would be needed from central government due to the changes in business rates. An admission that Lincolnshire has not seen the economic development required to benefit from the changes where councils can keep their locally sourced business rates and spend on their services.
The executive spent time patting themselves on the back. Self-congratulatory statements about the state of adult social care, the transformation programme for street lighting and aggrandising statements about their commissioning policy. What was severely lacking from this proposed budget was the problems that are being stored up. The current funding settlement is going to change drastically and LCC has no plan. The central grant will go to zero to be replaced by the locally sourced business rates which cannot sustain the council(s) in its current form. Lincolnshire’s reliance on an aging population will exacerbate an already stretched social care system. Internal power struggles will delay long needed electoral reform on a county wide basis.
Investment in a long term economic plan is needed urgently. Positive noises about super-fast broadband infrastructure are drowning out the gaping hole in our wireless broadband network. Digging holes in the ground is a 20th century solution for a multi-generational future problem. Connectivity is the keyword and Lincolnshire’s infrastructure is archaic. Jobs and growth should be the mantra of Lincolnshire Country Council and I heard precious little from the leader on Friday. With Brexit around the corner and with key infrastructure programmes within our gift we need to be ready to deliver growth in all sectors of our economy; service, manufacturing, farming, import, export, industrial. Work needs to be done to make Lincolnshire the destination of choice.
Leaping from one year to the next is a shockingly poor way to handle a £1 Billion budget. Cllr. Hill continues to paint a rosy picture of what is storing up problems for the future. Short termism and insular thinking is not a sound theory and I genuinely hope that residential and business communities apply the appropriate pressure to ensure a fairer deal for Lincolnshire.