Monday, 24 October 2011

Public toilets ... what now?

In my column in this week's Cornish Guardian, I look at Cornwall Council and its approach to providing public toilets and the outcome of a recent Scrutiny meeting at County Hall. It is as below:

In February 2010, the Conservative-led administration of Cornwall Council agreed its Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), which set out its overall budgets until 2013-2014. In December 2010, the Council set its detailed budget for 2011-2012.

On both occasions, I found the whole process extremely frustrating and was angered at how much information was not made available to councillors.

Taking the environment part of the budget as an example, I repeatedly sought more detailed financial breakdowns but was told these were not yet available.

Indeed, backbench councillors were told that Full Council should set the strategic direction of the authority and the headline budget figures, but leave the ruling Cabinet and senior officers to worry about the details and to “achieve the savings and decide upon the operational changes required to deliver them.”Many of those councillors who voted to agree the budget without understanding its likely implications now find themselves having to implement cuts that they do not support.

Last week at a Scrutiny Committee, councillors were in the invidious position of having to consider how they were going to deal with a massive reduction in funding for public toilets. Apparently, the MTFS reduces funding for the loos from £2.85 million in 2010-2011 to £1.49 million in 2012-2013 – something that all the councillors I spoke to had no recollection of ever voting for.

Cornwall Council is presently responsible for a total of 247 public conveniences, but a working group of the Committee had to come up with a recommendation to cease funding for 114 toilets in order to meet the reduced budget provision. The Council hopes local Parish Councils will be willing to take on these toilets and keep them open at a reduced cost. It will certainly be interesting to see what their responses are!

Personally, I think Cornwall Council have got it wrong. I believe it needs to revisit how it agreed the savings expected from the budget for public conveniences, as well as a range of other areas, which are simply unachievable without significant impacts on local communities.

One officer at the recent meeting even admitted that they did not fully understand the costs of operating toilets until after the budget envelope for the service had been set! How’s that for planning ahead!

Councillors at the meeting did however support my call for the Medium Term Financial Strategy to be reviewed in terms of the monies available for public toilets. Watch this space to see if it actually happens.

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