An Open Letter to Ian Hudspeth, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, About Proposed Budget Cuts
Dear Mr Hudspeth
I was the Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Banbury in May. I’ve met you a couple of times, the most recent being after the public meeting held in Banbury Town Hall as part of Oxfordshire County Council’s consultation process on the proposed additional £50m cuts to local services.
So it was with great interest that I read your correspondence with David Cameron, splashed across national headlines last week, which painted a clear picture of a Prime Minister with only a tenuous grasp on the realities of the demands he has made on local authorities such as Oxfordshire, where he also happens to be an MP.
At the meeting we briefly touched on the magnitude of the savings being demanded in the context of our national finances. I made the case that with a national debt of £1.56 trillion – nearly half of which was added by our Conservative Chancellor during the tenure of the last government – a deficit of £83bn and annual interest payments of around £43bn, saving £50m from local authority spending was the equivalent of trying to pay your mortgage off by skipping breakfast once a year.
Whilst these cuts will have virtually zero impact on the debt left to future generations, they will have a huge effect on those who depend on the front line services being withdrawn. In particular on adult social care facilities and the children’s centres you plan to close which were amongst Mr Cameron’s principal concerns.
Your reply to me was that we all had to “do our bit”. Well it seems from your response to the PM that ‘our bit’ has already been well and truly done.
As a local politician expected to deliver on these impossible polices, I’m sure you know that they are economically illiterate. Cuts to social care will impact on the health service as a whole. Cuts to support for young people have potential effects on social order. Cuts to public transport have serious implications for the workforce and people in isolated rural communities.
I hope you’ll agree with me that there’s a point where cuts can no longer be the solution to balancing the books. Personally I think we’re already well beyond that line in the sand.
So I’m confused by your own position on government policy, given that you continue to publicly affirm that you share Mr Cameron’s blind faith in the blunt instrument of austerity as the answer to all our problems.
You’ve also made much of the statistic that 2% of the county’s population consumes 50% of the finances. I’m sure the old, the sick and infirm are a great drain on our public services, but in a modern society surely those people should expect to be looked after by those of us who are better able to do so.
Do you feel perhaps that this 2% should be prepared to support the more lavish spending plans of our government in other spheres? The wasting of hundreds of billions to allow us to play our part in a thermonuclear Armageddon maybe. Or vanity transport projects that will allow people to get from London to Birmingham 15 minutes faster, when Oxfordshire County Council has just voted to cut local bus subsidies in the county.
Should Oxfordshire pensioners be made fearful of putting their heating on this winter but be comforted as they shiver in the dark that they are ‘doing their bit’? All this while the government you support hands over £5.9bn to private oil and gas companies – a figure well over a thousand times greater than the cuts we are being asked to make – and slashes support for local renewable energy projects, meaning we will miss EU emissions reductions obligations and become the only G7 country to increase spending on fossil fuels.
I really feel that you have to come down on one side of the fence or the other here. You can’t continue to support the cuts in public whilst apparently opposing them in private. As leader of the county council, the people of Oxfordshire deserve an unequivocal statement of your aims and allegiances.
You will no doubt be aware that Mr Cameron’s intervention in Oxford has now prompted requests from over 100 other councils to have a similar direct consultation with him over budget pressures. He also faces accusations of ministerial impropriety over his intervention with you.
So perhaps now would be a good time for hard-pressed council leaders such as yourself to make a firmer stand. You could set an example and refuse to pass what you have already told the PM is an impossible budget to balance in any morally defensible way. I know such actions come with potential repercussions, but if other council leaders followed your lead, how many mutinies could Westminster really handle? This could be your place in history calling!
Alternatively you could join the drive for the abolition or raising of the now outdated 2% referendum threshold on council tax increases. As you hinted at in your letter to Mr Cameron, selling the family silver can only plug the gaps for so long. If we want well funded local services, we should all be prepared to pay ‘our bit’ for them. Polls carried out by the Oxfordshire Green Party, The Oxford Mail and at your own consultation events have shown that people would be prepared to pay more council tax if they saw the money going to essential services.
Of course this would require the government to square the circle of increasingly expensive public services without any rise in taxation. But if they truly believe in localism, councils should surely be free to set their own local levy, unhindered by ideological thresholds dictated by central doctrine.
I think the people of Oxfordshire would welcome your further engagement with the PM on their behalf and with local activists on these matters. I personally look forward to your thoughts on how best to capitalise on what has now become a national talking point, and how we can use this new focus in the best interests of Oxfordshire residents and other similarly concerned groups across the country.