On Friday night, I attended the annual meeting of Grove Parish Council and as County Councillor and gave the report below.
Firstly, I have to say how pleased I am to be back this evening and able to give my annual report to the parish council. As many of you will already know, this time last year I was not in good health and undergoing chemotherapy in advance of major cancer surgery. However, thanks to the excellent care I received at the Churchill Hospital Upper GI Unit in Oxford, I was pleased to be able to return home to recover over the summer. I was delighted to hear that after nominating my surgeon and his team at the Churchill they actually went on to win the Oxford Mail Hospital Heroes Award at the end of last year, with fierce competition. I was pleased to be able to be there and part of this occasion at Oxford Town Hall.
I returned to council duties in September and since standing down as Group Leader last May, I have been able to concentrate on local issues and getting back my strength. The main thing to report to you this evening has been the major budget cuts which the County Council has had to undertake since February due to a poor government settlement and an ever-increasing demand on our services.
Three areas which have been the subject of these cuts have been in the public eye: 1) Children’s Centres, 2) Adult Social Care including day centres, and 3) public transport bus subsidies. At our budget meeting in February, we supported a budget amendment which gave a stay of execution to our Childrens' Centres. There had been a public consultation over the summer, and it was agreed that early intervention services would be centred at 8 hubs spread over the county (sadly not including any local ones here) and all 44 centres would close. However, since that was announced, more money came in from national government (probably as a result of media attention in our area!). Most of this money had to be ring-fenced for Adult Social Care, and I am sure you have already seen this on your recent council tax bill! This money could be used to help keep open some of our day centres, including the voluntary provision (like our Grove Day Centre) and the rest used to plug some of the gaps in an already over-stretched service as the needs of our ageing population increases.
We were also promised that the Childrens' Centres will be looking for local community solutions, so like our local branch library in Grove, we are now expected to find some help with this provision. It is not clear yet, how the professionally-led services which were provided will be retained. My guess is that much will change, but hopefully if buildings can be provided at reduced costs, and staff and trained volunteers are available, then there may be a local solution. However, I can make no promises at this time, except to say that I am hoping to set up a meeting with interested parties over the coming weeks. We have funding available for this until March 2017.
Bus subsidies are another problem to be tackled locally with all county funding going by July this year. Our public transport team at OCC are trying hard to find solutions using our current commercial services (Stagecoach and Thames Travel) in the hope that they may be able to add some of the local bus routes which will be axed, to their current schedule, but this is not easy and they have to be reliable and commercially viable or they will not continue. Tenders are currently being negotiated, so more on this later in the year. I know the current 38 Shopper Service will be very greatly missed.
One of the solutions which could help save some money is that instead of having a two-tier system with district and county councils both collecting council tax and providing services, would be to have one unitary council for the area. The County had already commissioned a report on this which stated that at least £50M every year could be saved by having ONE unitary for the whole of Oxfordshire, and it was agreed at the budget council meeting that this would be taken forward for public consultation. However, in the meantime, district councils put forward a press release with their own ambitions for unitary status, but this would involve having FOUR separate unitary councils for Oxfordshire which would also take in areas of Northants and the Cotswolds. Some of these councils are already sharing their services (like South and Vale districts), but taking on large areas of adult social care, child protection and highways and splitting them four ways, does not actually spell out how savings will be made Also there does not appear to be a plan for the Fire & Rescue Service. However, I am sure that our district councillors will go into this with their reports. At the moment, all I can say is that all options appear to be on the table, and I would hope that the public will be given an opportunity to have their say.
I think that’s all I need to report at this time, except to say that I am back doing my monthly surgeries at Grove Library 10.30am – 11.30am if anyone would like to see me face to face. Next date will be on Saturday 7th May. Meanwhile, I am happy to answer any questions.
The meeting ended with a discussion on the options for the county road barrier in Cane Lane. A number of residents aired their views and it is anticipated that there will be a full consultation before any decision is made.