Liberal Democrats on Hertfordshire County Council have set out their vision and ideas for the budget in a letter to the Chief Executive. Throughout the budget setting process for this year the Liberal Democrats have sought to find savings that will protect front line services and cut the waste in the council’s budget.
Chris White, Liberal Democrat Opposition Leader said:
We have to be clear: these are hard times but there are things that can and in some cases should have been done years ago to save money. We need to make sure that front line services are protected. Social Care, Education, and protecting children are all of vital importance. They can be services that save lives. Writing propaganda by contrast does not – it just boosts egos. This is why we have written to the Chief Executive to be very clear where we feel the savings can be made.
The areas where Liberal Democrats think savings can be made are:
1. Procurement. The savings currently being achieved on contract negotiations seem too modest. In highways, for instance, they amount to little more than £3 million out of a spend of £70 million. It should be possible, at a time in which economic growth is hardly booming, to drive out greater savings, possibly in collusion with other counties.
2. Developing capacity. We continue to be expensive in comparison to other councils when it comes to social services. The county must do more to develop in-county capacity and to manage the costs of care packages.
3. Headcount reduction. Headcount appears to be reducing at a rate of only 6%, even though the grant reduction is nearly 50% higher. Improved working practices, greater use of IT, outsourcing, partnership working and customer self-help – as well as cultural change – should all lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness and thus a larger reduction in head count. We continue to question the rather modest reductions proposed for the HR department.
4. Property. The property portfolio continues to be large and comprises (despite TW3) some 33 offices, 50 houses, a large number of farms and many other properties of doubtful use to the council. While these should not be marketed together and while there are also some important green belt considerations we need nevertheless to make sure that as much as possible is divested.
5. Sharing offices. It is vital to make real steps in sharing offices with other councils as well as the rest of the public sector, the voluntary sector and the private sector. So far little progress seems to have been made. We noted also when we visited Hampshire that their county hall has been redeveloped: we would seek a plan to dispose of the front part of county hall, which might make more sense as a conference centre, while redeveloping the back to make it more suitable for 21st standards of energy usage.
6. Invest to save. Again, we were impressed that Hampshire has used prudential borrowing to fund an upgrade of their road network so as to reduce maintenance costs over time. We wish to see Hertfordshire do the same: £100 million does not seem an unreasonable starting point. Meanwhile, more efficient methods of pothole repairs are available – proactive rather than reactive work cuts out the pointless management functions of identifying holes in a road which, by definition, must be obvious if they are in need of repair. Any increased spend on inspecting completed works is likely to pay for itself.
7. Sharing services. There is still further scope for rationalisation so that the boundary line between county and district services is no longer so arbitrary (classic nonsense are the division of responsibility for street cleaning, gully-emptying, yellow-lining and so forth). There are some modest cost savings to be made here straight away but far greater savings may be made by (for instance) merging the legal service into a single Hertfordshire-wide professional unit.
8. Information technology. there is still a great deal of progress to be made on this front – the paperless office is now achievable but some of our departments are still locked into a paper chase (not least Highways).
9. Devolution. Greater working with towns and parishes could yield some modest savings over (for instance) the provision of library services and grass-cutting.
10. Waste. The public relations machine remains an enormous source of waste and needs to be cut back, first of all by abolishing press releases relating to locality budgets. We also seek a 50% cut in the number of publications produced for external and internal consumption, especially Herts Horizons which could usefully be merged with periodicals from the police and other councils to establish an acceptable and politically neutral publication at lower cost. Meanwhile the concept of councillors receiving free lunches is inappropriate in this day and age.