‘Balancing the Budget’ – Hampshire UNISON’s intial response to the Hampshire County Council public consultation

A year ago the Prime Minister pledged that the government will “not go back to the austerity of 10 years ago” (Coronavirus: PM ‘will not return to austerity of 10 years ago’ – BBC News), yet that is hard to believe when looking at the Hampshire County Council consultation to address the £80+ million funding shortfall over the next two financial years.

After more than half a billion pounds in cuts over the past ten years, it has become difficult for the council to present these measures as anything other than what they are: cuts to public services that will be to the detriment of the community.

Once you work through some of the vague language, it is clear that cuts to services are coming that are likely to hit the most vulnerable the hardest, despite Hampshire residents clearly stating that they wish to see those most vulnerable most protected in past consultations. What’s more, cuts are proposed to services that prevent issues further down the line, thereby securing short-term savings at the cost of poorer outcomes and increased future expenditure. And this is all on top of the cuts to services that Hampshire has already made, such as to support for early years care or to libraries.

Cuts to services

In Public Health cuts worth £4.4 m will lead to the council “ceasing or reducing” services relating to substance misuse and sexual health, acknowledging that this will hit vulnerable and homeless people particularly hard. To add to this, the council will also be cutting funding for “services that support people who are homeless and at risk of homelessness”. The impact of this could be catastrophic given the expected wave of evictions as we come out of the crisis brought on by the lack of a government plan to support struggling tenants. Aside from the human cost of the measures put forward by the council, we also know that cuts to preventative services will end up costing the government more in the long run.

Older people in Hampshire would be hit in a number of ways. £6.9 million in cuts of Older Adults services will lead to “some individuals” receiving “less care and support funded by the council”. “Where appropriate” support currently provided to help people live in their homes would be withdrawn by the council with “family and friends” being left to take care of their needs. We know that women have borne the brunt of cuts to care services in the era of austerity, often being the ones to step in and look after vulnerable relatives when the state has stepped away. This appears to be set to get worse under these proposals.

A further hit for older people are the £1.5 million in cuts to transport services, through the removal of the Older Persons & Disabled Persons bus pass on taxi-shares & community transport services. HCC is also considering reducing the Hampshire Concessionary Fares Scheme to national minimum requirement.

In Younger Adults, where they are looking to save £8.7 million, HCC have indicated that they propose to increase the use of volunteers for the provision of ‘non-personal care’. There is also talk of using technology to facilitate a reduction in paid caring hours required to assist service users.

School Crossing Patrols may be discontinued or funded ad hoc by cash-strapped schools in the future in order to save £1.1 million.

The union is also concerned about what changes to the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 HCC propose to lobby the government for. Given the recent closures and cuts to remaining libraries, we are worried that what is being sought is a watering down of the local authority’s statutory responsibilities at the expense of the community.

Other cuts include £1.7 million from Waste Recycling which will lead to a reduction in opening times at waste recycling centres, as well as all those proposals that Hampshire County Council has not fully detailed in this consultation.

For staff, the proposed measures are likely to entail redundancies, yet more increases in workload, and impositions of new working practices, all of which may impact the quality of the services provided. School escorts have already been through a consultation this year which saw the council impose a 1 week cut in their contracts, a pay cut that staff could not afford. Now there are proposals to change move to a system where the hundreds of escorts currently employed by the council are employed by transport providers themselves. This risks school escorts finding themselves placed on worse terms and conditions, particularly given £2.5 million in savings are being sought.

What can be done?

Firstly, we would encourage the council to look seriously at using their £634.1 million in reserves to help plug the funding gap temporarily. They have said that 83% of their reserves are earmarked for some purpose already, but it is not clear how much discretion they have when it comes to reallocating funds from within this portion of the reserves. While we understand that using reserves is only a short-term solution, saying that the remaining 17% of reserves could only pay for the running of all services for 14 days is misleading and clearly there are vital services which could be saved at least temporarily.

Secondly, the ideology and central government decrees demanding these cuts need to be challenged. After a decade of austerity which left public services at breaking point, the COVID pandemic has led to an avoidable crisis in local government. Despite the billions amassed by the super-rich during the pandemic, the Conservative government is set to make workers pay the price once again through attacks on pay and conditions for staff and cuts to the services for all. Hampshire County Council needs to call out the government for creating this funding crisis to further their agenda of dismantling public services. The council must not neglect their responsibilities to Hampshire residents and must not turn their backs on staff who have given their all throughout the crisis. There has to be a national campaign to get this government to change course and Hampshire County Council have to play their role.

Finally, it goes without saying that the unions also have a role to play. We need to be ready to take action nationally and locally to protect jobs and services. We know this will be a very worrying time for members, please get in touch with us at unison@hants.go.uk if you have concerns. It has never been more important to join a union nor more necessary for members to get involved with the branch. We will look after one another as always as we go into the difficult period to come, and the union will have your back.

Make sure you make your voice heard by responding to the Hampshire County Council public consultation by Sunday 18 July, details can be found here: Serving Hampshire – Balancing the Budget Consultation | About the Council | Hampshire County Council (hants.gov.uk)