Former Burnham-On-Sea MP and current Lib Dem councillor Tessa Munt has this week slammed Conservative MPs representing Somerset for failing to gain Westminster’s backing to sort out the County Council’s financial crisis.
Somerset County Council has announced an additional £11 million round of cuts on top of the £11 million announced in February.
The council is slashing 130 jobs and has approved a number of cutbacks including the removal of funding for Citizens Advice Bureau services and a reduction in the winter road gritting network from 23 to 16 routes – including gritting routes in Burnham-On-Sea and Highbridge this winter.
Tessa Munt, pictured, said this week: “When even the Conservative leader of the Council says he feels ‘abandoned’ by the five local Conservative MPs, you know there’s a massive disconnect between what these MPs promised when they ran for election in 2017 and what they are delivering now.”
“MPs aren’t in Parliament simply to file into the lobby to support the Conservative Government every time there’s a vote. They promised to do their best for local people – and each and every one of them is failing to do that.”
“There’s plenty that could be done by the Conservative Government to prevent this Conservative-run Council sliding inexorably towards bankruptcy, and the inevitable crisis that will cause for the most vulnerable members of our community.”
“But every one of our MPs is sitting on his or her hands. They failed miserably to make the savings they hoped for last year, so how on earth do they think they’re going to make £22 million of cuts this year?”
“And if they don’t, spending will slip further into the red, which means Westminster-appointed Commissioners coming in to run the Council’s affairs.”
Tessa maintains that the County’s five Conservative MPs should have been lobbying hard for the Government to put Somerset into the pilot project to allow the County to keep its Business Rates – instead of the money being “siphoned off” to Westminster.
She says: “The Government promised that rural counties like ours would receive this support back in 2016 – but have failed to deliver. Any MP worth his or her salt would be holding the Minister’s feet to the fire – now – to get this money to us.”
“We have also argued that Government should allow Councils to raise extra money for Children’s Care, in the same way that they have done for adult social care. For the cost of a cup of coffee a week, another £4 million could go to protect vulnerable children.”
Tessa has thrown down the gauntlet to the County’s MPs to come and speak to Councillors and be briefed on the part they could – and should – play in dealing with the crisis.
The council’s leader David Fothergill said the model for funding local authorities is “broken” and it was “absolutely the most difficult set of decisions we have had to consider” in making the necessary cutbacks.
Burnham-On-Sea’s MP James Heappey said recently: “The financial woes of our county council have brought into sharp focus the age old political quandary of whether people will pay more in tax in order to fund public services.”
“In my short time in politics, I’ve found that people will often say that they’d be willing to but when elections come, low tax manifestos win more support.”
“Somerset County Council did the right thing: Whilst wages were stagnant and the financial crisis at its worst, council tax was frozen so that hardworking taxpayers could keep more of their cash.”
“As necessary as that was however, during the same period demand for key council services like adult social care rocketed meaning the council was being asked to do more whilst asking taxpayers for less money.”
“At the same time, the Government in Westminster was grappling with the same challenge. We were running a huge deficit and our national debt was growing quickly.”
“Indeed the interest on our national debt is now the third biggest payment the Government of the United Kingdom makes each year costing us more than the defence of our nation and the education of our young people.”
“Government spending had to brought into balance and that meant some very difficult decisions which included cuts to the money received by councils from central government.”
“Alongside that is the utterly iniquitous funding formula designed by the last Labour Government which works massively to the advantage of cities. The Government has pledged to change this but frankly that hasn’t happened quickly enough and so it’s no surprise that it is rural county councils like Somerset that are struggling most with their finances.”
“I’ve spoken in Parliament many times about the funding challenges we face in Somerset and through my chairmanship of the Rural Fair Share Campaign secured a commitment to recalculate the funding formula.”
“But none of that changes that there simply isn’t the money in Westminster or at County Hall to deliver everything that people want unless taxes go up. I’ll be asking Government for more but I fear we’ll be needing to ask you for more too.”