Council services face major overhaul

COUNCIL services in Suffolk are facing a shortfall of £150m in the next six years and the only way to avoid meltdown is a drastic overhaul in the way services are funded, including privatisation, county council leaders warned yesterday.

By Graham Dines

COUNCIL services in Suffolk are facing a shortfall of £150m in the next six years and the only way to avoid meltdown is a drastic overhaul in the way services are funded, including privatisation, county council leaders warned yesterday.

Opposition leaders immediately expressed concern that those most at risk from cost-cutting would be the elderly and disabled people who depended on the council for a high quality of life.

However, the county said a year-on-year gap of £25m between what the Government gives the authority and the amount that can be raised in council tax could lead to its inability to provide services such as social care unless new working practices are embraced.


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Chief executive Mike More described the financial situation facing the county council as “significant”, adding that Suffolk was not whingeing. “There is a steely resolve that the authority has to do something to avoid a complete breakdown in our service provision,” he said.

Council leader Jeremy Pembroke said: “Even if we wanted to, Whitehall prevents us from putting up council tax by more than 5% a year because there is public hostility to ever higher bills. But at the same time, the Government is short-changing us by diverting resources away from the people of Suffolk and into supporting council services in the north and midlands.

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“This is clearly unsustainable. This year, we have cut spending by £24m and in 2007-8 there will be a further £22m reduction. If we carry on like this, our £400m budget will have a funding gap of £150m in six years' time which will devastate services.

“We have to take action now to avoid a breakdown. We cannot ignore the warning signs. I want to be in control of events instead of events controlling me.”

Mr Pembroke, who acknowledged a change of government would make little difference to the way councils are funded, said next week's meeting of the county council would be asked to authorise the chief executive to develop plans to streamline the council's organisation to sweep away departmental working and move towards a cross-cutting strategic approach focussing on the whole range of policies.

It will mean the council moving towards the commissioning of services - privatisation - rather than providing them and could involve some functions being handed to districts.

Mr Pembroke said: “Inevitably, this will have a huge impact on our staff, but we hope to manage vacancies with the minimum of redundancies by redeploying staff and training them in new skills.”

More than £3m has been set aside in next year's budget to start the transformation process and the authority is working with its consultants KPMG to overhaul the council's departmental operation.

At the same time, Suffolk is seeking authority from the Government to enter into a pathfinder agreement with Forest Heath, Babergh, St Edmundsbury, Suffolk Coastal, Mid Suffolk and Waveney councils which would change the way frontline services are delivered and reduce overheads by combining back office functions such as legal advice.

However, Labour group opposition leader Julian Swainson dismissed the Tory approach. “The evidence is that privatisation will not plug the council's budget hole because costs go up higher, up in real terms, in the private sector,” he said.

“To give us these dire forecasts without any convincing evidence from ministers that they are going to keep the grant down in future should not be accepted at face value.”

Liberal Democrat John Field said: “Our fear is that the most vulnerable in the community, such as the elderly and the disabled, will be sacrificed and put at risk because this Tory administration seems simply incapable of financially managing a council.”

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