Council reveals cost-cutting drive

HUNDREDS of thousands of pounds must be saved through an efficiency drive which could eventually see public services suffer, finance chiefs have warned.

HUNDREDS of thousands of pounds must be saved through an efficiency drive which could eventually see public services suffer, finance chiefs have warned.

Officials from Forest Heath District Council say “everything will be reviewed” in an attempt to claw back a £400,000 budget shortfall predicted for 2007/2008.

They say their hand has been forced by a low annual cash settlement from the Government - making it difficult to balance the books whilst maintaining services to the public.

And a similar scenario is facing other councils across the county, they warned, as the financial pressure on local authorities increases.


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“We are having to look at everything as we have been backed into a corner by the Government,” said Bruce Rutterford, chairman of the council. “We are not alone in this from any stretch of the imagination, and services could well suffer as a result.

“It is getting very onerous, especially for members, and it is difficult to try and make the books balance.

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“We are looking at options such as leisure services going to a trust, and if that is the way forward, then so be it - if it gives the ratepayer a better deal.”

Mr Rutterford said everything would be examined in the drive to save cash, while projects, such as creating a major tourist attraction at Newmarket's historic Palace House stables, may now depend on whether external funding can be won.

John Alexander, strategic director of resources at the council, said projections showed the authority could manage next year's budget - but added savings in excess of £400,000 would need to be found by 2007/2008.

“This is not small change, and I think it (finding these savings) will be ongoing,” he said. “Compared with other authorities, we get the minimum grant settlement, and this has been ongoing for several years. It will kick in and hurt us in 2007/08.

“At the moment, we are trying to maintain services, but I would not guarantee that in the longer term. We are in this position along with many other authorities.”

Options currently under consideration for saving cash include passing various services to a trust and working jointly with neighbouring councils to improve efficiency.

“We have had success in that already, by putting council tax collections, business rates and benefit administration together with Breckland District Council,” added Mr Alexander.

“This has led to substantial savings of around £150,000 a year. We appreciate we can get economies of scale by working with neighbouring authorities to the benefit of both.

“We realise there can be no significant increase in council tax because of capping, and have got to manage the resources more effectively. Partnership working is one thing we are looking at, but at the same time we are trying to protect the service to the public.”

A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which hands out the annual settlements to local councils, defended the figure given to Forest Heath.

“This particular council has been given 3% for the next two years, which is above inflation,” he said.

Forest Heath will make decisions on any cost-cutting measures later this year before putting them in place for April 2007.

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