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It all started so well.
At the beginning of 2017 Surrey CC leader David Hodge (Con) was recognised in the New Year’s honours list with a CBE for services to local government and charity.
“It’s a huge privilege to serve the residents of Surrey as a councillor and as its leader and I’m determined to carry on doing all I can to stand up for the county including when it comes to highlighting the funding pressures we’re facing,” he said at the time.
Little did he know, or anyone else know for that matter, that highlighting funding pressures would soon result in events taking a turbulent turn.
Cllr Hodge, and Surrey, sent shockwaves through the sector and made national headlines when a proposal emerged to hold a referendum on increasing council tax by 15% for 2017-18.
In an LGC interview at the time Cllr Hodge said: “I appreciate it’s a big rise but it’s not our making; it’s the government’s making.”
He said he had been in detailed conversations with the government and local MPs, including chancellor Philip Hammond, then health secretary Jeremy Hunt, and transport secretary Chris Grayling, among others, about the county’s finances for five months “and yet they would not send us the money”.
As if speaking for the whole sector Cllr Hodge, who at the time was still the Local Government Association’s vice chair and Conservative group leader, said: “I hope the [local] MPs have a clear conscience because if we lose the [local] election and the referendum [the blame] won’t rest with the county councillors because we are doing what we believe is right.
“We do not want to see vulnerable people or children not being protected. That’s why we became councillors: to make a difference.”
Shots had been fired.
As an LGC briefing at the time noted, this was a risky strategy that carried with it the hope it might force the government to find some extra funds behind the back of the sofa for Surrey.
It was a strategy that initially appeared to work, although the manner in which any sense of success emerged was far from strategic.
Cllr Hodge was forced into denying he had struck a secret deal with the government over extra social care funding for his county after text messages he sent, intended for a Department for Communities & Local Government official and implying that additional money was being offered, emerged on Twitter.
The next day the then communities secretary Sajid Javid said the government had not struck a deal with Surrey over social care funding ahead of the council’s surprise decision to drop a proposed 15% increase in council tax – but he then announced the county was set to pilot 100% business rates retention.
As it turned out, no extra funding for social care was made available to Surrey, or any other council for that matter, when the final settlement for 2017-18 was announced.
Then, in March, an extra £2bn for adult social care over three years was allocated by the chancellor in the Budget. While there was a steep year-on-year decline in the amount of funding made available to the sector as a whole, six councils (of which Surrey was one) were revealed to receive a slightly larger amount in the second year (2018-19).
While that might’ve been a mini victory (in the end) for Surrey, Cllr Hodge’s reputation had been damaged – not just externally but among his peers too.
LGC reported how in March last year fellow county leaders put Cllr Hodge under pressure to refrain from seeking re-election as Conservative group leader on the LGA.
Leicestershire CC’s leader Nick Rushton summed the mood up when he said: “The leaks were embarrassing. I think [Cllr Hodge] got himself mixed up between leading Surrey and leading the Conservative group on the LGA.
“If you are the [Conservative group] leader on the LGA you can’t run a campaign just for Surrey.
“He should not stand in July – that would be the honourable thing. There are deep financial problems in Surrey, it would be better to concentrate on that.”
That ultimately led to Cllr Hodge resigning from that role, even if he did survive a vote of no confidence back home in Surrey.
However, it then emerged in a Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy report that while Surrey did not face any unique financial challenges, it was nevertheless “in a difficult financial position” and “in danger of rapidly depleting its reserves”.
Cllr Hodge, a former chair of the County Councils Network, has been praised with “laying the foundations” for the organisation’s successful lobbying in recent years. However, Surrey has in the last two years become dogged by issues with its children’s services and concerns about its budget. Surrey is facing a funding gap of £36m in 2018-19, rising to £86m by the end of 2019-20. This increases to an astonishing £94m the following year.
Today it emerged Cllr Hodge informed Surrey’s Conservative group on Friday of his intentions to resign as group leader. He is due to make a formal announcement at a meeting of the full council tomorrow.
He said: “I decided two years ago that I would like to step down now. It has been an honour and privilege to lead Surrey since 2011.
“I am very proud of what we have achieved during my leadership and my time as deputy leader – in particular the £540m of savings and efficiencies we have found since 2010, the building of tens of thousands of extra school places and the fantastic improvements to our roads through Operation Horizon.”
For an orphan who served 22 years in the British Army before entering politics and going on to lead one of England’s largest councils for seven years, Cllr Hodge has certainly made his mark during his time in public office – one way or another.
But Surrey’s saga continues, and it will now fall on somebody else’s shoulders to try and lead the council and balance the county’s considerable budget.
By David Paine, acting news editor