PRIME Minister David Cameron has been accused of “high handed and arrogant” meddling after he waded into the debate over county council cuts.
He has tangled with Conservative leader of the authority Ian Hudspeth in an exchange of letters, and come under attack from Labour opposition leader Liz Brighouse, after criticising “unwelcome and counter-productive” plans to close children’s centres.
Writing to Mr Hudspeth, Witney MP Mr Cameron said he was also disappointed with other cuts proposed to elderly day centres and libraries and claimed Oxfordshire’s spending had actually increased over recent years.
Mr Hudspeth, normally considered a political ally, countered by sending a six-page response defending plans to make an extra £50m of savings and accusing Mr Cameron of “inaccurate” comments.
Read his full letter here Ian-Hudspeth-letter.pdf
Opposition leaders seized on the PM’s “staggering” letter, claiming Mr Cameron did not understand the impact of the Government’s policies “in his own backyard”.
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The county council has proposed the measures to save cash in the face of caps on council tax and cuts made by the Government to its funding, which has halved in the past five years.
In his letter to Mr Hudspeth – which was sent in September but has only now emerged – Mr Cameron wrote: “I was disappointed at the long list of suggestions floated to make significant cuts to frontline services.
“I would have hoped that Oxfordshire would instead be following the best practice of Conservative councils from across the country in making back-office savings and protecting the frontline.”
The letter also claimed the county council’s net expenditure, excluding schools, rose from £341m in 2009/10 to £438m this year.
In response to Mr Cameron, Mr Hudspeth said he raised “serious issues” but rejected “assertions” that funding had increased, pointing to a cut in the county council’s grant funding from £122m in 2011/12 to £62m this year.
A spokeswoman for David Cameron’s office said yesterday: “There is still significant scope for sensible savings across local government to be made by back office consolidation, disposing of surplus property and joining up our local public services; we will be discussing with Oxfordshire how this can be taken forward to help protect frontline services.”
Mr Hudspeth told the Oxford Mail: “I don’t want to comment on leaked private correspondence that wasn’t intended for publication.
“What I can say is that these letters are part of an on-going discussion with government about how we can protect frontline services while doing our bit in Oxfordshire to tackle the national budget deficit – a government policy that I support. To do this, we are having to make some very difficult decisions, which is why we are consulting the public on all the options.”
County council Labour group leader Liz Brighouse said: “This letter is high-handed and arrogant and shows clearly that David Cameron does not understand Oxfordshire’s finances.
“Our budget is being spent on the most vulnerable people. But Mr Cameron has not bothered to speak to anyone here and has just relied on his people in Whitehall to tell him what is going on.”
Lib-Dem leader Cllr Richard Webber added: “It is staggering that the prime minister knows so little of the impact of his government’s cuts in his own backyard."
As we made clear in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, every part of the public sector needs to continue to play their bit to help pay off the deficit, including local government.
I was disappointed at the long list of suggestions floated in the briefing note to make significant cuts to frontline services – from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums.
This is in addition to the unwelcome and counter-productive proposals to close children’s centres across the county.
I would have hoped that Oxfordshire would instead be following the best practice of Conservative councils from across the country in making back-office savings and protecting the frontline.
Your briefing note suggested that £204m had been taken out of the budget since 2010...
The fact of the matter is that spending has actually increased in recent years.
The briefing note made no mention of the work that could be done to generate savings in a more creative manner... this process is an opportunity for the council to review its public property, to dispose of surplus assets.
This is not just about councils – much can be done to [also] improve co-operation between blue light services.
I would be happy to initiate further dialogue with advisors in the No10 Policy Unit and yourself.
I, along with many councillors across the country, worked hard to assist you in achieving a Conservative majority.
Central to the manifesto was a commitment to remove the deficit... something I fully support and will deliver in Oxfordshire.
The council is moving cautiously and trying to maintain services, however, there will be difficult decisions to be taken since I have to deliver a balanced budget on February 16, 2016.
I am open to all suggestions that will help.
Our revenue support grant funding has fallen by almost 50 per cent in the first half of this decade...
Other funding streams have not kept pace with this, particularly in real terms.
Your letter fails to acknowledge additional functions transferred to local authorities.
The council tax referendum threshold has meant we have been unable to keep pace with our challenges by using local revenue-raising powers.
I cannot emphasise enough that £204m is not a cumulative figure... cumulative savings since 2010/11 are in fact £626m.
Our significant savings over recent years have included taking out as much from the back-office as possible.
I apologise that my briefing may not have been clear enough on all of these measures, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t delivered. I am of course very keen to understand if there is more we could be making, as this is the way to protect frontline services.