By 2020 it seems that all of our local council’s money will be spent on caring for old people and children. Not a penny will be left over to run our libraries and swimming pools, fill the pot holes, and cut the swaying grass on our road side verges; there will be nothing for all the other important things that we take for granted in return for paying our Council Tax. Here in Herefordshire it seems, you can’t.
The Council’s budget from central government has been reduced by a further 0.7% this year (2015) requiring a £15 million cut in services with a possible further £8 million of cuts next year. This is on top of the £34 million that has already been ‘saved’ since 2011.
Even Herefordshire Council Conservative Leader Tony Johnson, is saying ‘enough is enough’ as he pleads with local Tory MPs Jessie Norman and Bill Wiggin to win a better deal from ministers.
Far from easing his political burden, the cruel truth is that Cllr Johnson’s political confederates in the Treasury are heaping on yet more austerity with an additional £12 billion of spending cuts during the next three years. There’s no end to his – and our - pain.
The trouble with places like Herefordshire is that we have a relatively tiny population occupying a very large area. With a sparse population, one of the lowest densities in England, living in far-flung towns, villages and hamlets, public services are expensive to run, much so than in close-knit urban communities.
Our countryside is beautiful but it’s poor: Herefordshire has the lowest earnings in the West Midlands region, and some of the lowest in the UK, on a par with Blackburn, Hull and West Cornwall. The average wage in England is over £27 thousand per annum, but in Herefordshire, it is less than £17 thousand. Yes, unemployment is fractional at 1.5%, but that’s because we come cheap around these parts: we work the hardest and get paid the least. Not fair is it?
More than one in five of our population is living in poverty according to Herefordshire Council. This estimate is probably on the low side because it misses those small pockets of rural deprivation out in the villages. The poverty index also doesn’t take into account the additional overheads of living in a rural area such as extra travel costs and higher food prices (nor the absence of accessible local services and amenities). A third of our rural households are considered to be in fuel poverty (that is they spend more than 10% of their income on heating) which is the fourth highest rate in England. Rural poverty also imposes a heavier strain on social care services because of worse health outcomes, bad housing and social isolation.
So house prices might be relatively cheap out in the sticks, but this also means that fewer people are paying Council Tax at the higher banding rates. When people complain about the poor value for money they receive from Herefordshire Council, they surely don’t realise that already more than half of the County’s Council Tax is used up caring for less than 2% of its residents - social care for vulnerable and elderly adults, and children’s protection and foster care. After its legal responsibilities, servicing its borrowing, running the administration, disposing of waste and repairing the roads, there is almost nothing left to do anything else. No wonder the libraries, youth centres and public toilets are closing.
When the Conservatives won the Herefordshire election in May 2015, they were handed a great big cup brimming with political poison. Still, MPs Jessie and Bill needn’t unduly worry: their rock solid Conservative majorities mean that the big guns at Westminster won’t care too much about their woes. There are plenty of marginal seats much higher up the political foodchain to be appeased. Herefordshire, like other remote rural counties, doesn’t signify.
What’s to be done? The simple answer for communities like Ledbury is that we decide whether we do without our public services or we pay more to local parish and town councils to take them over.
It is true, yes, we will be paying twice for our local services. First to the County Council, once again to the Town Council. Infuriating isn’t it? The best that can be said is that we will definitely be sure that our local parish tax (precept) is going to be spent locally. We can at least make sure we are getting a good service at the best value.
The main thing is not to be too angry with the local town council, or even the hapless Cllr Tony Johnson and his ruling Conservative group for the cuts. Those responsible for our agony are actually Messrs Osborne and Cameron, basking in a parliamentary majority gifted to them by the British electorate. We are simply getting what we voted for.