Surrey CC’s Conservative leader has blamed the government for the county’s plans to hold a referendum on a 15% council tax increase for 2017-18.
David Hodge (Con) told LGC a proposed cut to the learning disability grant of £32m for the next financial year was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. He said that he had not entered politics to put vulnerable people at risk.
Surrey CC, which has had its revenue support grant cut by £170m since 2010, needs to make £150m savings in 2017-18, Cllr Hodge said.
“I appreciate it’s a big rise but it’s not our making; it’s the government’s making,” said Cllr Hodge, who is also leader of the Conservative group on the Local Government Association. “They are taking £32m for learning disabilities off us [in 2017-18] and that’s a step too far.
“We have to do something to put the money in our tax base.”
This comes after LGC reported last month how a joint inspection by Ofsted and Care Quality Commission found parents and carers of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities in Surrey “overwhelmingly” lacked confidence in the county council.
The local government finance settlement has not yet been finalised so changes could still be made. When asked if the proposed 15% increase was a political stunt to get more money from the government, Cllr Hodge said: “I have no idea whether [chancellor] Philip Hammond is listening. I can’t tell you what he’s thinking or doing. All I’m saying is the learning disability funding and withdrawing £32m from it is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Cllr Hodge said he had been in discussion with the government about Surrey’s financial position for five months.
He put pressure on local MPs, which includes Mr Hammond and other cabinet ministers such as health secretary Jeremy Hunt and transport secretary Chris Grayling, to not stand in the way of Surrey’s referendum plans.
He said: “The thing that disappoints me is the government has agreed my figures are correct. For five months I have been going back to them with letter after letter, graph after graph, explaining why we were an outlier on learning disabilities and yet they would not send us the money.
“I hope the [local] MPs have a clear conscience because if we lose the [local] election and the referendum that 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.”
Cllr Hodge said while “some MPs have been terrific” he was “convinced some of them are not reading all of the papers” he sends them. “I can’t tell them what to read; my job is to provide the information,” said Cllr Hodge. “But there’s no doubt about it: our figures are correct.”
Surrey is due to hold the referendum on the same day of its election - 4 May - and Cllr Hodge did not think the proposed 15% tax rise would backfire.
“What’s happening is the leader is telling the truth,” he said. “The residents must make their mind up. It’s a referendum and it’s about whether the residents believe what I am telling them, and then do they want to protect services or do they want to see major cuts to services across the board?
“I don’t [want to make cuts]. I want to protect vital services for our vulnerable people.”
Simon Dudley, the Conservative leader of Windsor & Maidenhead RBC, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning that other local authorities could follow Surrey’s lead.
Cllr Hodge said: “I don’t want to be seen as someone creating unrest in local and national government. I believe every leader and every council should make their own decisions about what they need.
“My job is to look after Surrey’s residents and that’s what I’m doing.”
Cllr Hodge said it was “not my place” to comment on other councils who might view Surrey’s financial position as being better than theirs.
Should the referendum go ahead and be successful, Cllr Hodge ruled out another similar increase in future years.
“If we were to do less [than 15%] then we worked out we would have to do a referendum three years on the trot and that’s crazy so that’s why we’re doing this,” he said. “By adding the money back into the [tax] base we can continue looking after people, repairing the roads, and continuing to improve everything we can and that’s vital.”