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BUCKINGHAMSHIRE SETTLEMENT 'BAD NEWS', MINISTER TOLD

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Hansard 12 Jan: Col 211 ...
Hansard 12 Jan: Col 211

The revenue support grant settlement for Buckinghamshire is 'undoubtedly a bad deal, bad news and is being badly received', John Bercow, Conservative MP for Buckinghan, said in Tuesday's adjournment debate.

The average increase in social services standard spending assessments this year is 5.8%, but Buckinghamshire is due to receive only 2.8%, or£1.5m. The authority calculates that to retain existing service levels an increase of 9% or£5.5m is required.

Mr Bercow said that£4m shoirtfall was exacerbated by the government's decision this year not to roll forward to the financial year 1999-2000 the£2.5m in special transitional grant. If that sum had been rolled forward, as had been expected, it would have been possible for Buckinghamshire CC both to take on and pay for long-term care commitments. The threat to that was a matter of genuine, cross-party concern.

Mr Bercow added: 'If there is no announcement soon, or if the government announce they will not allow flexibility in the use of those independence-promoting grants, Buckinghamshire CC will be in a serious quandary. It will have to decide how to bridge the£6.5m gap. It can do so only by raising council tax or by underfunding education'.

The authority was achieving savings of£2m a year as a result of outsourcing. It was conducting a rolling programme of root-and-branch reviews of all its services. That had already yielded annual savings of£800,000, with savings of a further£2.5m a year earmarked for future years. In addition, the council had frozen infrastructure expenditure in cash terms, realising a saving of£1.6m a year.

Mr Bercow said the unstated capping criteria was 'an unsatisfactory guessing game'. He added if Buckinghamshire was judged to have got its decision wrong and was capped against its expectation, it would cost the county council£500,000 to rebill. 'That is not sensible. Let us know the ground rules and operate according to them', he said.

David Lidington, Conservative MP for Aylesbury, said: 'Short of cutting social services, there are only two ways in which the county council can compensate for the regrettable change in the government's policy. One is to increase the council tax severely in a way that would inevitably bear hardest on those people on pensions or fixed incomes. The second is to reduce planned spending on education in a way that would also be unwelcome'.

Junior environment minister Nick Raynsford, replying to the debate, said Buckinghamshire's standard spending assessment will increase by 4.5%, the largest increase since 1993-94. The average increase for the county between 1993-94 and now had been barely 2% a year.

He added: 'Buckinghamshire's increase this year is well above the rate of inflation, which shows our commitment to improving local services. An education increase of 5.4% shows our commitment to education in particular.'

On social services, the minister commented: 'The only fair comparison involves looking at the total resources provided for social services. In Buckinghamshire's case, the amount of grant from the department of health in 1999-2000 is increasing compared with the figure in 1998-99. When added to the SSA, it provides a 2.8% increase, which is above the expected rate of inflation and far more than the total SSA allocation to Buckinghamshire in any of the past four years'.

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