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9 Difficult Challenges Facing Surrey County Council in 2022

Published on: 25 Jan, 2022
Updated on: 26 Jan, 2022

Surrey County Council headquarters in Woodhatch, Reigate

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

The immense vaccination programme has brought some much-needed hope, but two years on from coronavirus we are still not free of it, or its repercussions.

As well as presenting new problems for our public health body, it got in the way of tackling other issues in full.

Here are nine of the most challenging that await Surrey County Council in the year ahead.

1. Giving road users a smooth ride

Nearly two-thirds of residents surveyed in 2018 told the council they’re not happy with road maintenance.

Surrey’s 3,500-mile network is a bone of contention among councillors too, as the council receives the same pounds per mile from the government as Cornwall, despite Surrey’s roads having the highest usage outside of London.

Ringway is taking over the highways maintenance contract in April, for at least the next ten years, so we’ll see how they compare to Kier.

Potholes top list of what Surrey residents feel are biggest issues in county

2. Getting people back into work

Outside of London, Surrey has the country’s largest economy and is the only net contributor to the UK Treasury, but Coronavirus sparked a jobs crisis there like everywhere else.

The work of the One Surrey Growth Board to increase employment and training opportunities will play an important part in reconstructing the labour market to avert a social crisis.

Although Surrey’s unemployment rate in June 2021 was 3.3 per cent, showing some recovery from its pandemic peak of 4 per cent in December 2020, it has not yet returned to its 2.4 per cent pre-pandemic level.

In November 2021, 18,970 Surrey residents were claiming out-of-work benefits, more than double the 9,040 claimants of March 2020.

Again, the situation has improved since claimants peaked at 30,600 in February 2021. The county has not seen rates as high since the early 1990s recession.

At the same time, jobs in the social care sector cannot be filled.

3. Improving the fire service callout response

Surrey Fire and Rescue Service still has work to do to improve the availability of its fire pumps – only 68 per cent last year – and to restore relations between firefighters and senior leaders.

A transformation of working practices has pleased the inspectorate but the Fire Brigade Union says morale in the service is at an all-time low.

Changes including closing some stations at night, and transferring staff to daytime working, have brought accusations of night-time response times being too long.

An inspection in autumn 2020 got rid of the service’s 2018 inadequate grade for efficiency and reported that SFRS had improved in preventing fires and making the future service affordable.

But it still needs to be better in the vital area of responding to fires, as well as in looking after its people and making best use of resources.

4. Challenging Suez over the Eco Park gasifier

A gasifier to burn non-recyclable household waste was contracted to be up and running four years ago at Shepperton’s waste management plant, the Eco Park, and Surrey County Council is taking legal action claiming Suez has still not delivered.

Suez disagrees, saying they continue to provide “an effective, high standard service” and waste has been processed in the gasifier since September 2019.

The council leader’s position is that it’s not fit for purpose and they want a “fully functional gasifier operating without interruption” – or they won’t be paying for it.

It will be decided through arbitration this year but in the meantime, he said, some of Surrey’s waste destined for the gasifier is having to go to landfill.

The council is going out to tender for waste services this summer as its 25-year contract with Suez is due to end.

The leader is expecting interest from Veolia – and the Competition and Market Authority has announced an inquiry into a Veolia-Suez merger.

5. Meeting the rocketing demand in special educational needs

The total deficit for special educational needs and disabilities funding up to April 2021 is £83 million.

The council aims to bring this SEND budget into balance in the next five years, but demand is only going one way- an almost 50 per cent increase in the four years ending 2020.

The education director insists that mitigating growth does not mean making it harder to qualify for help, but complaints abound over practices followed in the SEND area teams.

Addressing a high staff turnover could help make things easier for parents, while budget-wise the county council’s plan is to invest in at least 1,500 maintained places within the county.

This is because Surrey relies on an unusually high number of independent SEN placements, which on average cost £30,000 more than maintained placements.

6. Convincing inspectors children’s services should lose inadequate rating

Surrey children’s services are currently undergoing a full Ofsted inspection and the council’s director is confident of a good result.

This would help to attract and retain social workers to the authority, difficult after two consecutive inadequate gradings.

A monitoring visit in September focused on care leavers and said personal advisors’ workloads were now manageable but highlighted high levels of sickness and turnover.

Good Law Project started legal action in July to compel Surrey County Council and four other authorities to ensure they can house children in care in their local area.

In Surrey, 45 per cent of those in foster care and 70 per cent in a children’s home are sent outside of the county, some as far away as Northumberland.

The county council has set aside £5.5 million in this year’s budget to develop children’s care homes within the county.

The High Court refused to permit a judicial review and Good Law Project have a hearing at the end of March to request it reconsiders.

7. Keeping adult social care afloat

The more Covid-19 admissions and staff absences crippled hospitals, the more pressure mounted on the social care system to support discharged patients.

But this was the latest addition in a long-term crisis that 2021 saw the government finally try to address with its health and social care plan, the biggest reform in decades.

The county council leader, Tim Oliver, gave evidence to a select committee however that the cash promised was nowhere near enough and the council cannot safely deliver any more cuts.

Right now there are people unable to get care packages because of a care worker shortage affected by Brexit.

It is not helped by the fact Surrey’s housing costs are too high for many on the minimum wage.

Although we will start paying the new National Insurance levy this April, the council won’t see any of that for the first 18 months as it goes towards the NHS backlog.

The government wants council-funded and self-funded care costs to be equalised, and if private providers’ businesses are to remain viable that realistically is likely to mean councils paying more.

And if councils are supposed to secure lower rates for self-funders, that will give them a hefty amount of extra work: Surrey has a disproportionately high number of people who pay for their own care – four out of five. That’s around 10,500 people who have been promised their fees will be capped at £86,000.

Adult social care already takes up more than a third of the budget in a county whose population is ageing.

8. Plugging the £17 million budget shortfall

Of course, running and investing in all of the above services requires money.

Add in the rising demand and rising cost of living and the county council had to find £16.7 million to plug a hole in its 2022/23 budget, with the largest shortfall in adult social care.

This means that in order to balance its budget, unlike last year when it held back, the council is proposing making full use of its permitted council tax hike (just shy of three per cent) – as well as using a ring-fenced 2 per cent for adult social care that was left unused last year.

Council tax will be decided in a fortnight. Whatever the rise it will not be popular at a time residents also face the National Insurance hike along with soaring energy bills.

9. Going carbon neutral – before it’s too late

Not being able to access care packages is a serious and immediate problem, but when inaction will contribute to destabilising the planet, the council’s number most important challenge has got to be decarbonisation.

Warning signs include the 2013 and 2014 floods and heavy rainfall flooding homes in Epsom and Ewell and Reigate and Banstead last summer.

The county council has committed £237m towards a River Thames flood alleviation scheme and another £33m to manage flood risk elsewhere in the county.

But to counteract increased evaporation from warmer air, authorities need to deliver on their net-zero carbon targets.

It may be surprising to some that there is no legal obligation for councils to do this.

Talk on Surrey County Council’s climate change strategy was turned up a notch in 2021, two years after it declared a climate emergency, though the Greens’ leader thinks the council still views it as secondary to economic growth.

Climate scientists maintain something like a 45 per cent reduction by 2030 is needed to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees and avoid a tipping point.

The county council is aiming to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2025 and wants to make its buildings, streetlights and fleet carbon neutral within eight years.

It expects this will cost around 70 million but this will be recouped in energy savings and sales of solar electricity.

In terms of creating a carbon sink, it is way behind in its pledge to plant 1.2 million trees between 2019-2030. In the first two years, it met only 14 per cent of this target, with 1.17 million still to be planted.

It has also pledged to invest in replacing buses with those running on electric or hydrogen, but is still using private coaches made in the 1990s to take children to school emitting high levels of carbon monoxide, high hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxides.

More than 400,000 petrol and diesel cars in Surrey need to be replaced or avoided and the council is making plans to have 10,000 electric vehicle charge points installed across the county by 2030.

It is important the local authority takes a lead but, with 95 per cent of the county’s carbon emissions generated by residents and businesses, it will need to be all hands on deck.

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Responses to 9 Difficult Challenges Facing Surrey County Council in 2022

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    January 25, 2022 at 5:27 pm

    Here are my simple suggestions:

    Fill potholes quickly, once reported. This would save the cost of deeper repairs and more fill material.

    Give the fire brigade a budget and let them sort themselves out so as to de-politicise the services.

    Disabled children – stop sending them 20, 30, or 40 miles from home. Find a school local to where they live. Most I have met are perfectly able to be schooled locally with minor amendments to buildings and equipment. Only the extreme youngsters need special schools with extra special staff.

    Adult services – to enable continuity of service over the full working week, employ staff full-time, not on job share or part-time.

    Budget shortfall – stop buying properties outside the county.

    Carbon neutrality; wake up and realise it is a fantasy like a Covid free world. “Carbon neutral” merely means moving carbon from the roads and homes to large power stations to generate electricity. What we actually need is pollution reduction, contamination reduction and less plastic use (not recycling). Note, electric cars still have brakes and tyres that cause pollution.

  2. Simon Mason Reply

    January 27, 2022 at 7:36 am

    One more – charge developers a Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) like all neighbouring authorities.

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