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Catching up with the Leader of RDC, Councillor Terry Cutmore

18th December 2015

As always our time with Terry brings out a wide range of insights and understanding in respect of the working of the District Council and the wider area. This time round we again have provided sub-headings to make the extensive reading easier to handle and so you will find here considerations of the years of change, working under financial constraints, the exciting new Investment Board, housing, devolution, the coming elections and a brief reference to the County Council. We have cut down the hour’s discussion a little to make it more manageable, but we hope you will find it as interesting as we did.


Difficult years and changes?

Rochford Life: Terry, It’s been nearly five years since we first started doing these talks. I think we missed out last year because of the upheavals taking place in the Council, a difficult year, so we gave it a miss, but managed one earlier this year

Terry:  Well, it’s funny but one of things that’s been said since I was first elected is, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a difficult year’, and every year since, someone has said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a difficult year’.

RL: And you’ve been doing this for something like sixteen years haven’t you?

Terry: That’s right. I was originally elected as a District Councillor in 1999 and I got in by five votes, and that’s how it all started, but it just shows you that you have these turning points in your life can hinge on things that are so fine, that it’s just not true.

Working under financial constraints?

RL: You have often pointed out that there is such constant pressure over finances from Central Government that it’s all about cutbacks. Does it actually matter therefore, which party a member comes from and which party is in control, because surely everybody is going to be squeezed in the same direction?

Terry: Well, I’ve said to other parties and those non-aligned, I think we’ve all got the same aspirations for our public, I think we are pretty much aligned on that, but the way that you get there can be very different, and that perhaps is the party differences. For instance, if you look at the way Harlow, which is a very Labour council, might approach something, that might be different from the way we might approach something

RL: Would it be true to say that one of the ways you work to counter the financial difficulties is to encourage business as much as possible to increase revenue through the business rates? Last time we spoke you referred to the business developments going on around the airport.

Terry: You make a good point and that may well be the case, but the point I would emphasise is that we plan for that, and we work with our colleagues in Southend, and of course they are not of my political colour now either, they are a sort of conglomeration of different parties, but I know them very well and we work well together for the area around the airport.

RL: But it’s about increasing business rates.

Terry: That’s right. The government have said that if we get a rise in business rates then we get a share of that; it’s not much of a share but we do get a share, and it’s capped as well, but I know in the Chancellor’s Autumn statement that he made this year, he said he has taken away other grants like the Rate Support Grant and other things as well and they are probably going to cut the New Homes Bonus. Normally you get six years’ worth, if you like, and now they are talking about four years’ worth, but don’t forget that  the actual business rates we take in our District are I think somewhere about £14 or £15M and of that we get a couple of million or so back, but don’t forget that it’s not just us, that’s county as well and they have the lion’s share. If you look at your rates bill that you get, our part is just over £200 that we take. I think County take something like eleven or twelve hundred pounds, but then again they are delivering schools, social services etc. The Chancellor has said that with the challenge of the delivery of social services, they can actually take an extra 2% if they can, on top of the 2% cap that is already there for County Councils. There is no question it is a challenge and the figures that I have seen, albeit very early coming through last night (the budgets came out just last night and are being deconstructed as we speak) and chatting to officers, in broad terms it looks like what is going to happen with the money that is going to come through to us, is front loaded so there is a big drop to start with and then it tapers off a little bit, and that is a normal thing. It was expected to a certain extent but it is more of a drop than we thought it was going to be.

RL: And this is where staff reductions come in?

Terry: Yes, as you know we’ve had a staff reorganization at very senior end and that has saved us quite a lot of money in hundreds of thousands of pounds overall in an annual budget. There was a slight cost to it because if people wanted to leave there would be redundancies and obviously there is a cost to that initially, but clearly in the medium to longer term there are cost savings. We have also simplified the management structure and that has saved us a quite a bit of money. If we hadn’t done that we might be in a tougher place now but we’ve still got to make some challenging decisions ahead.  I think like most councils we are now in a position where we can take things forward and look at it in the cold light of day and consider what are our priorities.

RL: How does this work out, work sort of things does this include?

Terry: We’ve recently had a budget consultation that has gone out to the public and we’ve had responses on that, and it is much as we expected. One of the other things we’ve had to do is the Local Council Tax Support Scheme, where this is for the lower paid and we’ve had to bring those figures up slightly because the money we were getting through from Government has gone down. It would have cost us a considerable amount of money to keep it at the same levels. We are still doing that and people who are retired and get the full allowance, still get the full allowance. Having said that we did freeze our council tax last year, but whether we do that or not this year with the challenges we face, that’s a decision we must make once we’ve seen all the figures.  We’re usually pretty good with our budgets and we’ve cut down our staff costs considerably over and above what we’ve done with the senior management. Of course the senior management is where you can make the bigger cut but one thing we have tried to do is, as people have turned over in the organization, we’ve asked do we really need to have somebody in that particular post, and that’s a much better way than saying just get rid of people. This is actually my twelfth year as leader, and I note the differences over the years are enormous.  We are much more streamlined now and we seem to be able to do things more efficiently. For example, now I get no paper as we all have iPads, and that’s much more efficient

RL: With reductions in staff that puts more pressures on remaining staff. Do you think this sort of thing balances out and helps in that, efficiencies to counterbalance the complaints?

Terry: Yes, there have been complaints. I can’t hide from that because we publish them; they aren’t terrible figures but we have a challenge there. Inevitably in an organisation you’d like to deliver a Rolls Royce service but we probably deliver a Ford Focus service and there’s nothing wrong with a Ford Focus. You aim for a certain level but where you need to do something, for example like when we were looking at people who are vulnerable etc., there are the exceptions you have to make and aim higher and try and concentrate some of the stuff going forward. Also housing is a problem for everyone. I’m pleased to say we’ve got more housing coming through now; we’ve passed certain things that are going through that will deliver social housing and yes I know they are controversial because people see it as a challenge. If you look, say, at after the war, the number of houses built by private industry, it’s been pretty constant; the difference has been in council housing. Of course there was a burst of that in the 50’s and 60’s and we went what’s called Large Scale Voluntary Transfer and we transferred over to Rochford Housing Association, under the umbrella of Sanctuary which is a national housing association.  We managed to get £20M invested in 1700 or so properties from that, so that was part of the delivery that we negotiated, meaning new kitchens, bathrooms etc., so that worked well, but of course we’re not getting the receipts or using the money to create new housing.

The Investment Board

RL: So what’s the answer?

Terry: Well, one of the major things we’re looking at now is that we’ve created what we call an Investment Board. It’s still very early days and it’s only met once and that was to discuss the terms of reference, nothing more than that, but what we’re looking for is to try to keep a fund that we can invest and take forward.  What we’d like to do is try to create an income for the Council from whatever source it might be, and actually make sure that we can use that money to deliver our services rather than burdening the state or our public with some of that. Now we know that some other councils are well ahead of us on that, and we know that other councils are behind us, and so we can learn from what some of the other councils have done. We’re not allowed to trade as a council but we can create a stand-alone company, much the same as in County Council where they created ‘Essex Cares’ which is part of Essex County Council but is a stand-alone company with its own directors etc. and it runs as a business.  The County Council pays for those care services that they provide and it’s very successful. It might be where we have an asset, we might say, well, we want to develop that asset and arrange accommodation or it might be commercial accommodation, and actually take an income from that. It’s all very well when you sell a piece of land but you can’t use it to subsidise your rates; you’re not allowed to, but when you get an income from something then you can. Where we have that entrepreneurial capacity there are interesting possibilities. I mean many of our members come from backgrounds where they have run their own businesses so we have resources to take forward for that entrepreneurship and also it encourages business as well.  

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