A rapidly ageing population, a global financial crisis, and a dramatic reduction in cash support from the government means that West Sussex County Council is braced for the ‘perfect storm’.
Not only has it had to ruthlessly cut internal costs and reappraise every aspect of its back room functions to make them as efficient as possible, it’s been unable to avoid taking some very tough decisions affecting a small but important group of residents too.
On Friday (October 19), some of those affected by cuts to adult social care will come to County Hall to call for a change of heart.
Leader Louise Goldsmith admits it will be an ‘emotional occasion’, when campaigners from the high profile Don’t Cut Us Out make their case at County Hall.
“But it’s important that the debate takes place and I genuinely welcome it,” Mrs Goldsmith said this week.
“In the summer I gave organizers an extension of time to gather the signatures they needed to secure this meeting. I want them to understand that the only reason we have had to make these changes is because we have absolutely no alternative.
“Believe me, we have considered every possible way of maintaining our current support but given the rapidly deteriorating financial position all councils face, it cannot be done. I sincerely wish it were otherwise.”
Don’t Cut Us Out has claimed that the council could find the money from its reserves – money it holds to fund future projects.
“Sadly it’s simply not true. All the money in our reserves is committed to vital projects which we are obliged to provide. The only exception is £18m which we must hold on to for emergencies.
“It would be irresponsible not to have the money readily available to cope with incidences that threaten our communities – like the flood we experienced earlier this year or a harsh icy period.
“I would find it extremely difficult, for example, in the event of a really desperate winter to have to face residents and say, sorry, but the money to grit the roads has run out and we cannot afford any more salt.
“What do we say to the elderly sick woman trapped in her bedroom terrified as her home is flooded? – Sorry we cannot rescue you.
“What do we say to homeowners whose houses are flooding? – Sorry no money to help. That is the harsh reality we would face.”
West Sussex, she said, was one of the last authorities to reduce its ‘Rolls Royce’ service of adult social care. “We have continued to fund it long after many other councils but the money is finally at the point of running out.
“When we had to raise the eligibility criteria 20 months ago in response to the tsunami of savings the county council had to make, we took time and care to ensure that we did all we could to minimize the impact.
“Of course we would have preferred to be one of the very, very few authorities at ‘moderate level’ but the very harsh economic times means only one thing - harsh difficult decisions.
“If we did otherwise there would have been both short and long term disastrous outcomes leaving future generations in a mire of debt.
“The level of reserves banded about to anyone on the street, I agree, sound large, but examine the reason why they are there and what they are for.
“When we borrow we only pay the interest on the loan and set aside money in reserves to pay off the debt. Yes we have borrowed a lot for new schools in Crawley, new street lighting across the county, a state of the art waste management plant in Horsham, road schemes - all for the good of the community.
“But these projects do not come cheaply so we have to set aside money to pay off the debts in future years.
“There is money set aside for building projects – but what do we say to the parent, partner who receives that knock on the door that no-one wants because we have no money to pay for road safety or vital highway improvement schemes?
“What do we say to people who are in road accidents and fires when we can’t afford the modern equipment to help them – that’s the harsh reality.
“And what do we say to our residents when we have spent our reserves and there is no money left? Sorry will not be good enough.”
In West Sussex, as elsewhere, people are living longer. “However, it brings with it huge financial challenges at a time when our spending on adults’ services already represents more than a third of the council’s total budget.
“It is critical that we reshape some of our services to meet people’s needs as they move into old age.
“Above all else, we know that people want to remain independent in their own homes for as long as possible, and do not want to see their properties sold to meet the costs of residential care.
“That is why we have launched a whole new raft of improvements to the way we deliver adults’ services such as prevention and assessment teams, specialist day care centres, and the use of devices such a wireless pendant alerts that are linked to a 24 hour monitoring service.
“The county council is committed to meeting its obligation to help the most vulnerable people in our community, as well as ensuring a growing elderly population can ‘Age With Confidence’ in West Sussex.”
Mrs Goldsmith admitted she was disappointed that a way had not been found to work with Don’t Cut Us Out on changes in the future.
“We have to be fair to all who use our services and to our council tax payers who themselves in many cases face severe financial challenges of their own. But I do understand the concerns of those affected by these changes. That’s why Friday’s debate is so important, and why we will continue to listen to and seek to work with all those who disagree with the decisions we have been so reluctantly forced to take.”