Reflections on Kingston Council’s Budget Conversations

Kingston & Surbiton Labour Party’s Vice Chair, Liz Meerabeau, reflects on the borough’s Budget Conversations. This is an amended version of a letter which did not appear in the Surrey Comet!

The government cuts to Kingston council’s grant for 2016/17, announced only a few months before day one of the new budget, were more severe than the government had led councils to expect. This was central government transferring its financial policy of “austerity” (basically cutting public services) onto local government. Announcing new cuts just weeks before the councils April 2016 spending round, makes planning very difficult and leads to poor decision-making.

The Conservative leader of Kingston council decided to hold a “Public Conversation” on the cuts. As a local council-tax payer I found the Kingston Conversation on the budget cuts very informative, but I was concerned that the “Conversation” might be used as a cover for unpopular decisions.

Critically I thought that our council leader made some over-optimistic assumptions about the amount of council expenditure which could be saved through integrating health and social care, and through ‘well-being’ or more preventive health policies.

As a retired public health nurse I would dearly like both of these policy areas to be pursued energetically, at local and at national level, but I also know that we have been discussing them for at least forty years, with limited success. The independent think-tank for London health care, the King’s Fund, has recently warned that service reconfiguration and tight budgetary control can’t be achieved simultaneously, so we know there is no magic wand. And in relation to public health, some behaviours such as smoking have improved, but eating habits have not and nationally we have an obesity crisis.

The leader of the council, along with other Conservative run councils, lobbied the Government for fairer budgetary treatment for Kingston, and received transitional funding of £1.3 million to ameliorate the cuts. Bizarrely, transitional help went overwhelmingly to Conservative led councils and not to those with the greatest poverty and deprivation which are Labour run. This is an example of pork-barrel politics at its worst and sets a very dangerous precedent for council funding: a Conservative government trying refusing money to areas where it knows it will not win votes!

I would like to see the council joining colleagues in the Conservative-led Local Government Association in protesting against the hollowing out of local government and the services it provides, particularly to needy residents. This approach was not a feature of the “Conversation”.

Lastly, in relation to public health, I would like to see Conservative- controlled councils lobbying Government about the difficulty of achieving better nutritional health when the food industry has been allowed to influence national regulatory bodies. Better regulation of the food industry would  reinforce policies to promote nutritional well-being and save money in the health services.