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The Big Interview with Jason Kitcat
11:11am Sunday 8th December 2013 in News
Last week Brighton and Hove City Council unveiled draft plans on how it proposes to reduce its spending in the coming year by £22.5 million. Adult social care, children’s services and the voluntary sector are among those areas that will be hit. Council leader JASON KITCAT defends the draft and maps out where next for the spending plans.
The Argus: This year is the third year in a row a Green-led council, which was elected on a manifesto of resisting cuts, is set to approve massive reductions. How can you justify this?
Jason Kitcat: We’ve always said that we can’t stop the cuts made at source by the coalition government, though we totally oppose their approach to austerity. They are pursuing their ideological goal of shrinking local government by slashing our funding, attempting to pass the blame onto local government. It’s telling that so far the average council has seen a 28% cut in funding, whilst Whitehall has only trimmed its own spending by 8%.
We’ve resisted this by protecting essential services for citizens, such as through finding new ways of working, new income sources and by bringing together services and departments into fewer buildings.
Comparing how our services fare with other councils is telling. All our libraries are open as are the children’s centres. We are protecting citizens from the worst of the cuts while supporting the local economy to buck the national trends.
However the Westminster austerity consensus between the three major parties means that this dire situation will continue for years to come. I wish circumstances were different, but we’re here to make the best out of a very difficult situation for our residents.
The Argus: Other councils made controversial but radical spending decisions when austerity first started to bite but Brighton and Hove appear to be slowly slicing bits off year-by-year.
Is this death by a thousand cuts?
Jason Kitcat: Not at all. Some of the so-called ‘radical’ big ideas adopted by some other councils have started to unravel, some quietly and others very publicly. We are doing big things here, like exiting around 10 council buildings a year, moving entire services into paperless working, collaborating more closely than ever with partners in health and police. We have painstakingly searched for efficiency savings and found them.
I think, where possible, it’s better to keep services going wherever possible. Isn’t this the bold choice in light of the circumstances?
The Argus: All the talk from yourself and Labour politicians is to blame the Conservative-led government.
Should you not be taking responsibility for the budget yourself?
Jason Kitcat: What I will take responsibility for is doing the best job possible with our local pot of money, however much it is that we are left with. We have little choice over how much we get, but we do have choices around how to spend it locally and I expect to be accountable for that along with all other councillors. For example we have £3.7 million less in this coming budget because Tory and Labour councillors voted for a tax freeze in our first year.
It is true to say that even without the relentless government austerity measures, councils would still be in a tough place. About £10 to £15 million of the budget pressure each year is from growing demand, primarily in adult social care but also in relation to the recent baby boom we’ve experienced. Without major national reform to the social care system as well as a radical local rethinking of how we deliver social care then all councils still face a massive challenge.
The Argus: The elderly and the vulnerable are set to suffer the most in this year’s plans.
This could see care homes close and workers with learning disabilities made unemployed. How is this fair?
Jason Kitcat: I disagree. It’s inaccurate to suggest that just because the most money is coming from this area that it is the hardest hit. Adult care is the largest area of spending for the council, so even a relatively minor change in money spent seems huge. The reality is that as we all are living longer, demand for these services is growing in a system not set up to cope with this level of need.
There are many ways we are making savings in this area including increasing income, reducing costs and working differently. We can make major savings by helping elderly people to live at home for longer, something they generally prefer but which also costs the council less. Also every adult placed in a home outside of the city that we can bring back into Brighton and Hove is likely to save us money whilst also being better for the family who want to visit their loved one.
It’s clear that the draft budget protects the vast majority of services and we are doing what we can to keep providing care and support despite the government drastically reducing our funding.
The Argus: On one hand the council is saying that the voluntary sector can help it make millions of pounds of savings.
Yet on the other, the council is reducing its funding.
Is the council passing the buck on this issue?
Jason Kitcat: We spend about £23 million a year with the third sector locally and we are committed to developing our engagement further. I know that these largely voluntary organisations are vital to the city’s wellbeing.
In previous years we have asked our third sector providers to help us meet our savings targets, and we are continuing with that. Although we’re proposing a modest reduction to the grants pot for next year, this does not reduce our commitment to the work they do. In light of declining budgets overall, whilst it is difficult, we are doing well to keep this much spend in our local third sector.
We are also currently working jointly with the third sector to discuss how we can move forward together, especially at a time when we both find our funding reducing.
The Argus: Will there be any change to this year’s budget before it is agreed?
Jason Kitcat: I very much hope so. That is the whole point of us publishing three months early. Under previous administrations the budget only appeared a few weeks or even days before it was set in stone. That’s no way to run a city or engage citizens.
We want to allow proper debate and discussion over the proposals and take into account what people have to say. What we have published is only a draft, there is more work to be done, and I’m sure we will amend it in light of feedback as we have done every year previously.
I think the budget has been strengthened each year by public involvement and the changes feedback has brought about. We welcome input and Argus readers can find out more at www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/bhbudget
The Argus: One of your Green colleagues has already said he will vote against the final budget in February.
How many more do you expect to follow suit and does it not undermine your position as council leader?
Jason Kitcat: The budget is, of course, one of the key decisions for a council. Especially in these very difficult times there are going to be strong views about it. Every party on the council has many views and disagreements amongst their members. I believe Greens have a more healthy approach, allowing a diversity of opinions rather than imposing top-down whipping.
All councillors from all parties will need to consider very carefully how they feel about the budget before the vote in February. Our primary duty must be to do the best we can for our citizens with however much money we have available for the coming year. My hope is that everyone, councillors included, will contribute to commenting on and improving these draft proposals.
It is somewhat premature to decide how to vote three months ahead of time on the basis of a draft rather than working to improve it where possible. There’s a long way to go before the February budget council meeting, I look forward to hearing people’s views.
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