Like other local authorities across England, Devon County Council is having to make cuts to services in the name of the god Austerity. The Council’s Tough Choices consultation invites the public to comment on where the cuts should fall. Does it really?
One consultation in progress is the public transport budget, where Devon says it needs to make savings of £1.76m out of a budget of £5.77m, or nearly one-third of the total . To achieve this, bus services across the county will be reduced, following a withdrawal of subsidies to the bus operators. Councillors decided to go out to consultation on the proposal, even though they recognised the environmental and social downsides set out in the officer report . These are:
- reducing the scope of bus services as an alternative mode of travel to the car
- a consequent likely increase in traffic
- increased vehicle emissions
- increased greenhouse gas and other emissions
- reduced public transport network resilient to future effects of climate change
- reduced sustainability of communities served by council funded bus routes that will have a reduced level of service in the future
- reducing the ability of people without a car to travel to work
- a negative impact on knowledge and skills, employment levels, and local businesses
It gives more than pause for thought that any public body is prepared to implement policies with these results.
Meanwhile, the Devon highways budget is also under scrutiny. The budget for maintenance alone is currently a hefty £63.8m . The saving the County Council intends to make here is £3.4m, or 5%. The goal is to “find different, more cost-effective ways of doing things and that non-essential work is stopped so that we can maintain a safe and effective highway network while helping to support economic growth”. The proposed reductions put forward for consultation, and which look likely to be implemented are:
- Reduction of gritting and snow-clearing flee
- Change of criteria for gritting and snow-clearing routes
- Stop maintaining grit bins
- Closure of picnic sites
- Stopping grass cutting (except for visibility areas)
- Stopping weed treatment
- Remodelling of the parish lengthsmen service
- Reduction in Neighbourhood Highway Team staffing
The impact assessment of these cuts acknowledges they are expected to make life worse for some people, particularly in rural areas . However they do not have the long-term environmental impacts envisaged for the public transport cuts.
The extent of Devon County Council’s commitment to social and environmental improvement is revealed in other savings measures. A cheap cut is the proposed £0.1m saving from reducing school crossing patrols, which will lead to increased car use as parents drive their children to school and, in the words of the officer report, “Increases in motorised travel will have the double effect of reducing daily activity levels and increasing collision risks for those children who continue to travel on foot.” . UPDATE 14 February: Devon County Council’s Cabinet decided yesterday not to proceed with the school crossing patrol savings.
Apart from the social and environmental vandalism, what is striking about all these measures is that they are easy to implement. By contrast, the main highways budget is spent through a long-running contract with a private company, South West Highways, recently extended to 2017. As is so often the case, the relationship between the commissioner and the contractor gets very close. In this case, the Council and SWH have set up a “Virtual Joint Venture” . Council and SWH staff are co-located at County Hall and in the local delivery units, which gives SWH easy access to the driving seat. Under the current contract, SWH receives a fee of 2% of turnover.
Dismantling any of this would be considerably more difficult than cutting a subsidy or sacking a few lollipop ladies. And of course reducing highways spending in a roads-dependent county like Devon would have the economic growth lobby up in arms. So should we be surprised that the axe is falling on the easy targets rather than on the substantial contracted highways budget, irrespective of the social and environmental consequences?
It’s unlikely that Devon County Council is the only local authority making the same judgement calls. But that doesn’t mean they are good ones. The real villain, of course, is Austerity.