A couple of weeks ago, we drew attention to our local MPs softball question to David Cameron at PMQs regarding how well (or not) Bicester’s infrastructure is keeping pace with development. We said then, that there seemed to be a mismatch between wishful thinking and reality. Since then, the Working Tax Credits fiasco has forced George Osborne to re-think his policy and look elsewhere for cuts – he has a potential £4bn hole to fill. Alas, as Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out in the Guardian (3rd November), he doesn’t have that many options. His only way to cut welfare now appear to be either taking money off pensioners (not a good political move), ‘U-turning’ on welfare cuts altogether, or “…by walloping ‘striving’ families again and again, through tax credits and housing benefits” – again neither good political moves.
So roll up, roll up to the great spending review later this month where Osborne has promised to make at least £11bn more ‘savings’. With so many protected areas – health, aid, schools, defence – he’s likely to hit Council spending even harder than before. We already know that Dept of Communities and Local Government has volunteered to take 32% cuts over the next 4 years on top of those already planned. It is likely that Local Authorities will also be expected to bear their share as part of the Spending Review to follow. Now most of the ‘easy’ back office savings have been made by local authorities – even Gary Porter, the Conservative Chairman of the Local Government Association thinks so – further cuts will hit frontline services even harder and we already have a taste of that from the latest ‘Consultation’ by OCC on £50M worth of cuts it feels it has to make; and that’s before Osborne tries to make up for his mistakes of the last few weeks. We’ve drawn attention already to the impact of cuts on Childrens Centres and Adult Social Care, but what about the infrastructure? Roads for example?
Don’t forget, the County’s population is expected to grow by more than 10% from 676000 to over 744000 in the next 10 years with Bicester’s population set to almost double to 60,000 by 2031. The number of cars and volume of commercial traffic is also destined to expand rapidly. Car ownership alone, already very high at 89% is expected to rise faster than population from 368,000 vehicles in 2013 to 438,000 by 2031, an increase of 19%.
In Bicester alone, this could mean 40,000 cars by 2031 compared to 21000 now. But to return to what’s currently being proposed. OCC’s Environment and Economy budget cuts for 2016/17, on top of those already in the pipeline from previous budget reductions, total just under £10M. What’s the impact? From the County’s consultation document the principal casualty will be the capacity and quality of the road network. Not only will highway maintenance be cut but also the capital programme is likely to experience delays. Winter maintenance will suffer, with fewer roads gritted and those that aren’t perhaps becoming unsafe or unusable. These measures, together with a hard winter, will result in more rapid deterioration of the road surface due to frost damage and an increase in the number and severity of potholes, with less investment in their subsequent repair or wholesale resurfacing.
On top of that, surveys to establish road condition, together with local area response to day to day problems, will be reduced, further impacting the road maintenance programme and priorities. More traffic on deteriorating roads means greater damage to roads and vehicles, not to mention increasing road traffic accident risk, and a likely increase in insurance claims from the public. Last year alone, local highway authorities paid out more than £1.6M nationally to motorists for damage to cars from potholes. This may well harm the County’s desire to reduce the cost of its insurance premiums and frustrate projected savings in that department!
Cuts to both the street lighting and traffic signals programme will result, according to the County’s own assessment, in lower performance and poorer service. Surely this increases risk of accidents for the public whether walking or driving? And reductions in highway drainage and gully emptying are both likely to lead to localised flooding, again more risk for the public as traveller and homeowner.
Of the other measures, the public is likely to suffer from the reduction in HWRC facilities from 7 throughout the County to 3 (possibly 4), increasing the distance to travel to dispose of household waste. This is surely a deterrent for householders and traders alike which could lead to an increase in fly tipping, lower recycling rates and spoiling the environment. And at a time when the demand for such facilities from a growing population will increase!
There are a number of other measures which will all have an adverse impact on the County’s economy and environment; in particular, reduced funding for public rights of way could make them less accessible for example, while reduced or no bus subsidies will affect both rural areas and the disadvantaged alike.
With a rapidly growing population, increase in car ownership and demand for movement, these cuts could end up costing more to remedy in the long run than maintaining and growing expenditure now. A false economy based on a failed austerity prospectus foisted on local authorities by the Treasury. As we’ve seen this week, the Prime Minister himself hasn’t a clue how devastating these cuts can be or how local government works. The Autumn Statement and spending review will undoubtedly see worse to come.
We believe that, as Chakrabortty suggested in his Guardian article, ‘perhaps we have finally reached the point where the cuts can no longer be defended’. Infrastructure in general and roads and transport infrastructure in particular require investment now if towns like Bicester are not to grind to a halt, and we haven’t mentioned the increase in air pollution from slow moving traffic and its impact on health of both children and the elderly.
Enough is enough. Banbury and Bicester Labour is campaigning to oppose all these cuts!