Dear Ms Beach,

 

Suffolk County Council has recently launched a Consultation survey on its 2019/2020 budget, inviting the electorate to give its views on the services provided and the estimated savings (aka cuts) for the financial year in question.
There are several issues with this consultation:
  1. The OECD’s Good Practices in Survey Design (Measuring Regulatory Performance © OECD 2012) states that a good survey requires the inclusion of questions that, amongst other criteria, mean that the target population has the capacity and knowledge to answer them all. But, in Question 1 of SCC’s survey it asks respondents to consider, on the basis of one short paragraph, whether the Council is providing value for money for council tax. It is doubtful that the majority of people have either the knowledge about how County Council budgets work or the capacity to evaluate such a complex issue on the basis of the very little information provided to them in this survey.

  2. Again, the OECD’s guide states that questions should be clear and precise enough that they will be consistently understood in the same way by all respondents and that key terms are clearly defined. The expression ‘statutory services’ has not been clearly defined, nor is it clear from the list on which people are asked to comment which services are statutory and which are not. As a consequence, the survey fails this second good practice test.

     

  3. The questions are highly loaded. Question 1 is prefaced by the statement that the majority of the Council’s budget is used to support vulnerable children and older people in care and young people with ‘complex education needs’. Given the emotional pull that these categories inevitably play on, it is unfair to then ask people to agree that spend should be directed elsewhere or that the Council is not providing value for money. In Question 2, the category Public Health “includes” drug, smoking and alcohol support but fails to mention food safety, healthcare associated infections, immunization and protecting from public health hazards. This creates an imbalance in the perception of many who may be less inclined to support services aimed at those with addictions than they would if presented with the whole picture.

     

  4. The Survey mentions the savings it has made (£260m since 2011) and claims it will need to make even further savings of £25million in 2019/20. It does not explain why it needs to make these savings, particularly since the Prime Minister has recently informed the nation that “austerity is at an end”. It also fails to mention the large amount of usable reserves held by the County Council (c.£179m) or justify why these cannot be used to avoid the cuts.

     

  5. The Survey only asks people to prioritise the cuts they wish to be made. It fails to ask people to prioritise where they want additional spend to be made. The only option to object to further cuts is to select ‘None of these’ when asked to select if “happy or unhappy” about further reductions to the various services selected. The underlying premise is that cuts will be made whether they are approved of or not by the electorate – it is just a question asking people to select who will suffer most.

     

  6. It is unreasonable for the County Council to endeavour to avoid becoming increasingly unpopular as it cuts more and more services (to name just one, the Fire Service is set to lose a further £240,000 from its funding) by expecting its electorate to make these hard decisions for them. In the past, opposition groups have made a number of constructive suggestions about generating income but have been consistently ignored while SCC appears to have accepted the Government’s rules about reducing its spend year on year without objection.

As a result of the above, the Bury St Edmunds Labour Party finds that this survey is both unfair and misleading. Unfair because it asks people to play one category of vital services against another when they choose where cuts should fall and misleading because it does not provide the electorate with a complete picture either of the devastation that these cuts have caused so far, nor whether there is any different approach that can be taken with regard to local government spending and savings.

 

The Bury St Edmunds Labour Party is committed to fighting these and other unfair cuts in order to maintain essential services and to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.

 

Yours faithfully,
Darren Turner
Chair of Bury Branch Labour Party
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