Spend Property Cash on Services

Liberal Democrat County Councillors have criticised Surrey County Council’s plan to set aside income derived from property acquisitions into further property speculation rather than investing in services.

According to the latest budget figures, the County Council is facing an overspend of £19 million in the current financial year but is planning to set aside £3.8m of income generated from property to invest in more property rather than take the pressure off council services which are facing cuts of £104 million this year.

The Conservative Administration at County Hall has said all along that the reason we are investing millions in commercial property across the country is to generate revenue which will protect council services in the future.

Yet, as millions of pounds worth of cuts have been made by this Conservative Administration to services for vulnerable and disabled adults, for people with learning disabilities, for community recycling centres, for street lights and much more, we see income from the County Council’s property investments being set aside for more property investment rather than alleviating the huge financial strain on vital services to Surrey residents.

We are thus calling for the Conservative Administration to do what they said and put this property income into protecting services for Surrey residents, rather than investing more public money in commercial property hundreds of miles from Surrey.

Council Plans to Sell Off Properties Still Shrouded in Secrecy

On Thursday 14 December 2017 the Conservative Cabinet of Surrey County Council is expected to agree to enter into a Joint Venture with an external company to redevelop the Council’s own land and buildings for housing for sale and rent.

Although we welcome action being taken at long last to utilise County Council owned buildings and land which have been left vacant for many years, the proposed Joint Venture between the County Council and an external company fails to meet the needs of Surrey residents and is lacking in safeguards and is shrouded in secrecy.

In short, there is insufficient detail in the public domain to give an assurance that the County Council’s property and finances will be adequately safeguarded and that the needs of Surrey residents will be met.

We do not know if there are sufficient safeguards within the Joint Venture to adequately protect publicly owned property and finances by ensuring clear accountability as there are no elected county councillors on the Joint Venture Board, as the County Council does not have a majority on the Board and as it is unclear what the methodology will be to decide which properties are surplus to the County Council’s requirements.

There is also no mention of any consultation with local County Councillors about properties within the areas that they represent or any kind of engagement with Surrey residents.

Furthermore, with such high property prices in Surrey, genuinely affordable housing is desperately needed so that social workers, teachers and care workers can afford to live here. However, the proposal does not contain a commitment to provide additional housing units above the minimum amount of affordable housing required under planning legislation which is simply not good enough. Through this venture which uses land already in the public domain there should be a significantly higher proportion of housing that local people can genuinely afford.

Overall, this Joint Venture proposal is a missed opportunity to help meet Surrey’s need for genuinely affordable housing and to meet other needs such as for special needs places for children and housing in the community for adults with learning disabilities. This deal is for selling off County Council land and buildings for the maximum amount of money and income without adequately considering what public benefit could also accrue if the Joint Venture was structured differently.

County Council Should Stop Relying on Members of the Public to Report Missing or Damaged Road Signs

Liberal Democrat Councillors on Surrey County Council have called for an end to the County Council relying on members of the public to report missing or damaged road signs and are calling for a sign inspection policy, as exists in other County Councils, to be developed and implemented.

Surrey’s roads are littered with posts with no signs and damaged signs. Not only does it look untidy, but it also means that motorists are not getting the benefit of information from signs warning of hazards such as bends or low bridges, informing them of speed limits or directions to towns or places. These signs are either necessary to make Surrey’s roads safer, in which case they should be replaced, or are redundant, in which case they should be removed.

We believe that the County Council needs to develop and implement a road sign inspection policy so that it has an accurate record of what road signs should be in place and, through regular inspections by council officers, identify those signs which are missing or damaged and should be replaced. This would ensure that vital road signs which are necessary for road safety can be and are replaced.

Alternatively if the County Council is expecting members of the public to notify it of missing and damaged road signs, it should provide an interactive map showing which road signs should be in place to enable them to more effectively perform their role.

Surrey County Council Criticised for Failing to Address “Critical Weaknesses” in Children’s Services

A recent letter published by OFSTED has raised very serious criticisms of Surrey County Council three years after the County Council’s Children’s Services were inspected by OFSTED and subsequently rated as “inadequate”.

There is a long list of failings that have been identified: the poor quality of social work, weaknesses in managerial oversight, children not receiving the right help at the right time and, in some cases, children being at risk of harm.

It is clear that the pace of improvement within Surrey has been too slow and that in some cases basic social work practice is not being followed.

We believe that what is needed now is a step change in the drive to improve these services, much better communication and lines of accountability between management and the front line and a real sense of leadership from the County Council that it has the will, drive and expertise to turn these services around for the benefit of children in Surrey.

Senior management should resist the temptation to blame the front line and their immediate superiors as in reality it is the failure of leadership over the years that has left front line staff without the right guidance and with case loads too large for them to manage well.

Senior managers must listen to the social workers as well as the children. Doing more of the same won’t put things right; imagination and innovation are urgently needed. No social worker goes to work to do a bad job – they and the children of Surrey are being let down.

County Council Must Increase its Provision of Services to Children with Special Educational Needs & Disabilities

Liberal Democrats have called upon Surrey County Council to improve and expand its provision of services to children with Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND).

The County Council spends a total of £237 million on SEND services for children and young people, educates 822 SEND students outside of the county, and spends nearly £27 million on travel costs for SEND students.

Liberal Democrat County Councillors are now calling on the County Council to invest in more SEND provision within Surrey in order to reduce the number of placements outside of the county, as well as reducing travel costs and times for children and parents alike.

This call follows an OFSTED inspection in October 2016 where Surrey County Council was found to have significant areas of weakness in its SEND practices and that there was “overwhelming” lack confidence in the local area’s leaders and SEND services.

In short, we believe that it should not be necessary for children to be placed out of County for their needs to be met and that we have the skills and commitment in Surrey to be able to create our own specialist units to address SEND needs which would both improve the lives of children and their families and provide for their needs closer to home.

This Investment in Specialist Units within Surrey, if made, will be life changing for those who use the facilities, and their wider family members. Let’s do it and make a real difference.

Over 2,000 Sign Petition to Save Surrey’s Performing Arts Library

A petition of over 2,000 signatures calling for Surrey’s Performing Arts Library to be saved has been presented to a meeting of Surrey County Council’s Cabinet. The petition, which was launched by Liberal Democrat County Councillors in September, was handed in by Ges Ray, Vice-Chair of the Leith Hill Music Festival.

Recommendations as to the future of the service will be proposed by the Communities Select Committee at their meeting in February 2018 with a final decision taken by the Council’s Cabinet in March.

The Library, which is currently based near Dorking at Denbies Wine Estate, houses a truly unique collection of music, theatre, orchestral and dance materials available for public loan. It also holds a specialist Vaughan Williams collection and permanent display covering the life and works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), commemorating his strong links with the area where he lived and where he composed some of his most important pieces.

Ges Ray said, “With music scores sourced through the Surrey Performing Library, The Leith Hill Musical Festival reaches some 3,000 singers, performers and audience members each year in the Dorking Halls alone, let alone the many thousands of users across the county and beyond. If this unique jewel of a collection is dispersed now, it will effectively be lost.”

Whilst we are pleased that the County Council appears to have ruled out the closure of the service as a result of the campaign to save the library, the County Council is still considering breaking this collection up amongst a number of libraries – an action which would be tantamount to closure.

We believe that what is needed is time to allow the Performing Arts Library and its supporters to come up with a workable and viable financial model which secures its future going forward and we will continue to fight and protect the Performing Arts Library until a viable option can be developed to retain it. We further believe that it would be very foolish to close a service which has provided such enjoyment to audiences across Surrey and beyond.

Statement on Today’s Budget

Today’s Budget was a missed opportunity for the Government to address the crisis in social care funding in places like Surrey and to alleviate the pressure on local councils delivering essential services to vulnerable residents but who cannot keep up with demand and cost pressures.

The worsening growth figures outlined by the Office of Budget Responsibility paint a bleak picture for local councils who desperately needed a cash injection from the government in order to carry out their statutory duties.

The Chancellor’s announcement of extra money for house building is welcome but these must be homes that people can afford, with a range of tenures and in the right places. High cost areas like Surrey and the South East of England need an increased supply of genuinely affordable homes so that teachers, care workers and others working in the public sector and providing the essential services that we all rely on, can live and work locally.

The Conservative Government has failed to address some of the critical issues affecting areas like Surrey and is having to put £3bn extra aside in order to prepare for the fallout from the extreme version of Brexit that it has chosen to implement.

To address these issues, Liberal Democrats have called for a cash injection into the NHS, funded by an increase in income tax of 1p which would raise an extra £6bn, alongside reforms which would bring together health and social care whilst boosting mental health care, and to for an extra £7bn for schools.

It is disappointing that the Chancellor, himself a Surrey MP, has not recognised that these issues need to be addressed when putting together this Budget.

Future Mole Valley – the Liberal Democrat Perspective

The somewhat flawed but very important first consultation process for the new Local Plan has concluded and the results are being analysed.

The consultation, based on the disputed requirement to build nearly 6,000 additional new houses, has, as expected, raised significant and controversial proposals and suggestions and the conclusions are awaited with great anticipation and concern.

Mole Valley Liberal Democrats have deliberately not sought to lead opinion on the proposals because of the importance of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity of freely expressing their views.

But our position remains clear with regard to our policies of protecting our market towns and rural environment from developers who would happily concrete over as large an area as possible to meet perceived housing need.

  • We maintain our opposition to developments in the Green Belt on land that continues to perform the function of Green Belt and our support for the significant protected conservation areas in our main town centres which would restrict or prevent major high rise development so that our heritage can be preserved.
  • We are deeply concerned about the possibility of any large scale development either in the Green Belt or beyond the Green Belt because of the potential loss of countryside and because our infrastructure of road and transport facilities is unable to cope with current demands let alone further significant development and we believe that the only time rural land should be released for development is in small scale plots for affordable housing for local residents where the proposed development is supported by the local community or for farm diversification to ensure our farms remain viable.
  • We need housing development but we also need a planning system that would allow the provision of affordable and small scale development where brownfield land is available for such development rather than the current restrictions which often militate against such developments.

As Liberal Democrats, we will be looking very carefully at the outcome of the consultation and will take account of what comes forward. We will, however, be very surprised if the outcome does not support these principles.

Surrey County Council Must Pay £18,000 to Family After Highly Critical Ombudsman Report

Surrey County Council has been ordered to pay £18,400 in compensation to the family of a severely autistic child after a highly critical report from the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman Report criticised all aspects of the County Council’s handling of the case, which concluded that there was fault by the County Council and that an injustice had taken place.

The Report makes very concerning reading. It shows that Surrey County Council failed to provide the support needed by a severely autistic child and his family in that there were multiple failures in terms of assessing the needs of the child, assessing risk, providing support when needed, delayed decision-making, and poor complaints handling.

Overall, the Report highlights systemic weaknesses in the County Council’s processes and decision-making.

As Liberal Democrats, we participate in the Improvement Board for Children’s Services and are aware that improvements have been made in the service more recently. But nevertheless, we are now calling on the County Council to assure us and residents that processes are now in place to prevent similar incidents occurring again in Surrey.

We have also requested an assurance that the County Council’s assessment, decision-making systems, processes, and support to children and families have improved so that other families get the support that they need on a timely basis.

“Broke” County Council Gives a £400,000 Grant to Art Gallery with £38 Million in Funds

Liberal Democrat County Councillors have condemned a decision by Surrey County Council to award a £400,000 grant to an art gallery which has £38million of funds and an income of £1.2million a year.

The Watts Gallery in Compton, Guildford, was awarded the money despite the County Council’s Chief Finance Officer warning that the County Council’s financial position is extremely serious, that the proposed expenditure has not been budgeted for, and that the gallery was already “financially viable”.

We believe that at a time of huge spending cuts in Surrey, it is quite incredible that the priority of the Conservatives is to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on an art gallery which appears to be in good financial health and well supported.

This grant contrasts with other recent decisions taken by the Conservative administration at County Hall such as the £3.7million cut to Housing Related Support – a budget cut which affects some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

As a result of this contrast, we ask, “How on earth can the Leader of the Council look residents of sheltered housing, who are about to lose some of their warden schemes, in the face and tell them that this is a sensible use of public money?

This decision should be reversed as quickly as possible, with the money re-invested in council services to the benefit of Surrey residents.

We support the arts but we also support sheltered housing for vulnerable people even more and furthermore we suspect GF Watts would too.