At the emergency budget ten days ago, the Conservative led administration forced through a budget based on an assumption of a government grant cut of 30% over then next four years. The Government had announced that the average local government cut was to be 26-28% and ministers including Eric Pickles and Nick Clegg told councils that they should avoid large scale job losses or cutting services too heavily early on.
Cornwall Conservatives, however, thought differently. The mantra was that harsh early cuts would mean greater long term stability and the need to cut less in subsequent years. To some degree, the Cornwall attitude made sense. An early budget would mean changes could be implemented sooner. But, we asked, why make the decisions just ten days before the settlement (and therefore the details) became known. Why not wait so that the budget could be based on reality, rather than assumptions?
Now the figures have been announced. They are not completely clear cut, it must be said. Various changes to the way the grant operates - including the loss of ring-fencing for all but a couple of budget lines - mean that some further investigations are needed.
But the headline appears to be that Cornwall has escaped some of the harshest cuts - for which we must be thankful. There is still a need to make significant cuts, but it would appear on first reading that Cornwall's Conservatives have gone over the top with the axe and many services that could have been saved are under threat.
The simplest comparison is with the 'Revenue Spending Power' figures - in other words, how much the Council will have available to spend based on the grant it gets from the Government. In the current year, this figure is £524.3 million and next year it will be £507.5 million. That is a cut of £16.8 million - or 3.2%, which, when compared with the 8.9% being cut from some councils, is very small indeed. The following year, the cut will be even smaller - at 2.85%.
That's £16.8 million set against a Cornwall cuts target for the next four years of £170 million!
Even the cut in grants from the Government is significantly below the Council's predictions. Cornwall Council said that it estimated that our grants would be cut by 10%. In fact, the figure is 8.9%. That might not seem like a huge difference, but with every percentage point being worth about £2.4 million, it's a lot of libraries or adult care services.
So what has Cornwall Council said on the matter?
The official Council twitter account says:
"Initial analysis suggests that the settlement is generally in line with expectations of around a 10% reduction in grant funding next year."
Chief Exec: "It will take weeks to unravel details of the settlement, which reinforces council's decision to go early and set its budget."
As I said, there is a huge difference between 3.2% (or even 8.9%) and 10% and the Council should not be trying to pretend they are the same thing. And as for the decision to go early, we have still had no decent answer to why Cornwall Council - almost alone among authorities - felt the need to jump the gun on the settlement figures and ignore the advice from the ministers themselves. Although further work is needed, this really shouldn't take 'weeks' as the Chief Exec claims. And what happens if the final result turns out not to be as bad as forecast? Will the redundancy notices be taken back and services reinstated or will the administration press ahead anyway?
This is the fundamental question. Of course it was right to start work on the budget some time ago, but it was wrong to sign it off before we knew the details. If Cornwall Council really wanted to spare the pain, they would have waited until the settlement was published and made cuts accordingly - cutting only what they absolutely had to. Instead, they have set in train a series of ideological axings which will have a significant and detrimental effect on some of the most vulnerable people in Cornwall for many years to come.