Tuesday: General Purposes Committee

10:00AM sees a meeting of the county council’s General Purposes Committee. As usual, we receive a financial update on the spending for which the committee is directly responsible, and then an update on the whole council’s financial position. There’s an expectation that the council will overspend again this year, with considerable underspends in some services such as highways offset by overspends in others such as care. Cllr Nichola Harrison observes that contractual savings or additional income in areas such as waste or parking are not used to improve related services.

We’re asked to approve a new request to spend £5.5M on disposals, acquisitions and adaptations of property that the council will use following the move of the council’s HQ to Alconbury, along with over £0.5M for reorganisation allowances and moving costs. My colleague Cllr David Jenkins expresses concern that the council has not seen a business case for this very large item of expenditure – which is why Nichola, David and I abstain.

We receive the council’s draft Medium Term Financial Strategy for the next five years, which will be updated and debated in February alongside the budget. The government has not given the council certainty about funding beyond next year, which makes it difficult to plan for the future. I make the point that the strategy currently contains no reference whatsoever to climate change or the environment, and suggest that this should be included within the strategy’s ‘guiding principles’ and in the text of the strategy. There is a long and somewhat fractious debate but we agree that we have ‘considered’ the document and will see it again in four months’ time.

Next up we’re asked to note a review of the council’s draft revenue budget for next year. There’s just one specific proposal, a council tax collection counter-fraud project with district councils. Then it’s the council’s draft capital strategy and capital programme. Cllr Nichola Harrison points out that the debt charges paid by the council look set to rise closer and closer towards the council’s advisory debt charge limit over the next five years (and even exceeding it in the final year), and that these charges are also taking up a higher and higher proportion of the council’s spending – from 7.6 per cent next year to 9.0 per cent in five years’ time. She also observes that the council has chosen to exclude from its advisory limit schemes for which the cost of borrowing the money is equal to, or lower than, the savings or income that will result. But not all schemes deliver the savings or income they hope for, she points out – what happens then, as we will have borrowed the money?

We then have a presentation by students from CUSPE, the Cambridge University Science & Policy Exchange, on their research into how to measure Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s carbon emissions, and how we might go about reaching carbon zero by 2050. The work they have done is enormously impressive and is a useful base from which to work. (I’m on the council’s Climate Change & Environment working group, which will be considering these issues.) Cllr Nichola Harrison draws attention to the significant contribution of transport to carbon emissions, and the need to do more, citing the ongoing work of the Greater Cambridge Partnership. We’re told the researchers have been keen to pursue this particular area further and that there’ll be more information towards the end of the year. I ask the researchers about the potential competing land uses raised in their work: restoration of peatland, tree planting, renewable energy production, agriculture for food security – and of course the council’s strategy to make more commercial non-agricultural use of its own farms, and the pressure for housing and economic growth across the county. Some other important points are made, including the need to move to a more plant-based diet, and about water shortages. Cllr Harrison proposes that the research report should be sent to all county councillors and to our partners across the county. It’s great to see the CUSPE research work, championed by Cllr Ian Manning, bearing fruit.

There’s a series of reports from the council’s Transformation Team, including a monitoring report on performance to date. The committee is asked to approve spending of £390,000 on a commercial team of three people, as discussed at the Commercial & Investment Committee last Friday. Then there’s a bid for £410,000 to review home to school and adults social care transport policy, processes and procedures; and to train 50 of the 183 pupils with special needs currently travelling in individual taxis to travel to school by other means. While it’s really important to enable and encourage children with special needs to be independent wherever they can, it’s also important that this should be led by what is in the best interests of the children not by the financial savings. We are told this will be going back to the Children & Young People’s Committee; after all, as one councillor says, if the parents and the council disagree about what is in the best interests of the child, who reconciles that?

We then see the quarterly performance report. There has been a huge improvement in how the council receives performance information, and the way it’s presented for us.

Finally we agree to ‘repatriate’ our Professional Finance Services and Democratic & Members’ Services officers back from LGSS (the council’s shared services arrangement with other councils including Northamptonshire) to our own council. There’s an ongoing review of these LGSS arrangements which hasn’t concluded yet.

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