In the second part of the Big Interview with Toby Savage, read about school funding, austerity and his ambitions for the future.
In the second part of our big interview with Toby Savage, leader of South Gloucestershire Council, talks to, Andy Wynn, about school funding, austerity and his ambitions for the future.
The subject of school funding had to be brought to the fore, if only because of the attention of the BBC documentary ‘School’, that focuses on the Castle School Education Trust (CSET) in South Gloucestershire.
The programme highlighted what many local people already knew – that school funding is a huge issue nationally, but that it is particularly so in the local area. Schools in South Gloucestershire receive hundreds of pounds less, per pupil, annually than equivalent schools in, say, Bristol.
Toby explains what he doing to improve the situation at a local level: “Principally we lobby and campaign to our MPs to make representations on our behalf in Westminster. We did a lot of that two years ago when the new national funding formula was being worked up and we were successful here.
“South Gloucestershire had one of the highest percentage increases in the country, making the gap between the highest and lowest amount authorities receive closer than before.
This meant we brought in an extra £8 million, a 6% increase. The gap is still larger than it should be but it was progress and a step in the right direction. I don’t think anyone would argue that the current system is ‘fair’ and there is still work to do,” Toby explains.
“A bad deal for the tax payer”
Ensuring funding is spent in a cost-effective manner across all areas is also a consideration for Toby and the council: “One of the pressures we have locally is the level of spend on pupils with special educational needs and disabilities,” he says.
“We are suffering today from seeds that were sown several years ago, where decisions were simply not taken around proper planning for the new special schools and provision.
“Now we are in a position whereby children with additional needs are coming into the education system and there is not the provision or specialist places available for them. We are having to fund transport costs and fees to send them to other schools, including specialist private provision, outside of South Gloucestershire – it is very costly and these are very vulnerable children.
Not only is this a very bad deal for the tax payer but it is even worse for the young people and their families, these children are transported miles away from where they live.”
Toby goes on to say that they’re trying to put the matter right at a local level, including a purpose-built building for Pegasus Special School on the Patchway Community School campus, an expanded provision at Warmley Park Special School and plans to build a new special school on the Marlwood School site, outside of Thornbury.
“We also recently opened The Chase a specialist Post 16 Centre in Stroud, working with South Gloucestershire and Stroud College who are also the sponsor for the development on the Patchway site,” Toby adds.
“Overall, we will be able to send children with these profound and complex need to schools and facilities that are in the public sector and in South Gloucestershire, this represents a much lower cost to tax payers but most importantly these children will be able to be schooled close to where they live.”
The Government Spending review in 2010, saw South Gloucestershire Council forced to reduce spending by more than £60million a year less and it is targeted to reduce spend by a further £30million by 2021/22.
The Council Savings Programme (CSP) aims to deliver £37.6m of savings by
2019/20. We have been very successful to date in delivering savings and mitigating the impact on services as a result of early planning and robust delivery and have achieved over £34.7m to date.
It is important that this continues through the next cycle of funding reductions and resultant saving requirements and our next Council Transformation Savings Programme (CTSP) has an additional savings target of £19.4m by 2021/22
Toby thinks he’d have done some things differently in the last eight years: “I am now imposing my principles on the direction of the regrettable cuts that we still need to make because of the rising pressures, particularly with regards to adult social care, which is a national issue that we are affected by as much as anywhere
“We have though always been ahead of many other councils. We have been very good at using new technology to save money on local services. This is a very complicated process and takes time, but is absolutely the right thing to do, if you are able to maintain a service by changing processes and technology then that is the best thing for our residents.”
Toby went on to discuss, with a real sense of pride, the work which has been done around libraries in South Gloucestershire: “We introduced Open Access technology into almost all of our libraries – this means that these libraries are now open for double the amount of time that they were previously, at the same time we have therefore been able to reduce staff hours.
“So, we now have libraries open before people start work and after they finish, you can still see staff during certain times if you wish, but can use the libraries over a longer period.
“We could have followed other councils and just closed the libraries, but I would rather take the longer, more complicated route and have the best possible outcome of a better service at a lower cost to the taxpayer, that is how we save money. This approach has led to new users of libraries across South Gloucestershire.”
Speculate to Accumulate
Many local councils have approached the budgetary challenges by investing in property, taking advantage of lower interest rates available to the public sector and guaranteeing a long-term return and regular revenues. South Gloucestershire is no different.
“We are always looking for new areas of income, I am very keen to maximise this area,” says Toby.
“Our foray into commercial property was the purchase of the Bristol and Bath Science Park in Emersons Green. Not only was it a very good commercial investment, it also falls in one of our three enterprise areas.
“There are other areas of undeveloped land on the property, which weren’t being brought forward for development despite us having an ambition to provide thousands of hi-tech and hi-skilled jobs. Now we own it, we can ensure that it is fully built out and then it can provide the highest possible financial benefit to the area,” he continues.
“We are looking at other opportunities, balancing the risk as it is tax payers’ money, there is no such thing as the council’s money, and we wouldn’t take some of the risks that other councils have in commercial property, it needs to be a good deal.
“We can do this, as I said before, as we are ahead in terms of where we need to be with our savings, we are not desperate in the way that some authorities are, where they end up taking larger risks.”
In a time when many would argue that the ‘High street is dying’, South Gloucestershire Council is working with West of England Combined Authority (WECA) to ensure that established and more deprived communities are not left behind as newer areas emerge.
Recently WECA announced a £10m ‘Love Our High Streets’ fund and initial work in our area of South Gloucestershire, includes a focus on Kingswood. The money will be used amongst other things, to bring empty premises back into use.
“We have the funding, the resource and the power to secure planning permission on empty buildings and sell them onto the market to develop them, using the proceeds from the sale on other projects until we have a thriving high street and surrounding area that the residents of Kingswood deserve,” Toby explains.
After an engaging and wide ranging hour, our time came to an end with a final question. Having a clear passion for public service we wondered what would be next, did Toby harbour ambitions for higher office?
What came was the shortest answer of the hour: “No, there’s no ambitions there, I am focused on working for the people of South Gloucestershire.”