Council urged to reveal cuts plan

COUNCIL chiefs in Essex were last night urged to “put the cards on the table'' over how they plan to save �300million in the next three years.h

James Hore

COUNCIL chiefs in Essex were last night urged to “put the cards on the table'' over how they plan to save �300million in the next three years.

The Conservative-run Essex County Council has announced it wants to make the changes without cutting services but opposition politicians have questioned whether that is possible.

The savings programme has been hailed as one of the largest of any council in the UK and council cabinet member Stephen Castle has claimed it will be done through reductions in bureaucracy.

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The council has already announced more than 250 management jobs will be going, with the number of line managers dropping by 16%, although it is hoped the cull can be done through voluntary redundancies and retirement.

Leading councillors have this week been debating the future of finances and last night Tom Smith-Hughes, who leads the opposition at County Hall, said it was time for the council to “put the cards on the table”.

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He said: “The assumption is there will be a gap of �300m so what I am saying is that we have to find those savings and that has to be done through back-office cuts and protecting the frontline services wherever possible.

“However, that amount is 25% of council spend and I don't think you can do that over a three-year period without making frontline cuts - I don't want to do it, but let's be honest and say there is a problem.”

The Liberal Democrat leader at County Hall said it was far better to be honest with staff about the tough times they may face, rather than rush through cuts at a later date.

“It's not just Essex, everywhere else will be doing the same and we will have to find savings so we should talk to people about things and at least explain to them the message - it might be tough but let's at least treat them as adults,” he said.

And Julie Young, the Labour party representative on the council, told the EADT: “I am the vice-chair on the executive scrutiny committee and at the first meeting we started to ask questions and it was clear that no-one knew the answers.

“The majority of councillors on there are Tory and even they were in the dark.”

Mrs Young said she questioned officers about claims of a “road map” for the changes, only to be told there was no such thing in existence.

“There are a lot of question marks but for the punter in the street, they have no idea what is going on - why would they? The only time that people are concerned about who is delivering their service is when they go wrong.”

Mrs Young said she had concerns about the quality of services provided when they were taken out of council control and run by outside companies in a bid to save money.

But Mr Castle, who is in charge of education and the 2012 Games, told a BBC Essex radio debate this week he accepted there would be cuts - but said it was about reducing running costs, not services.

He said: “It's a cut. But what we are looking at is a cut in the cost of running the council not a cut in the services.”

He said “valued public services” remained the number-one priority.

“That's very difficult in the financial situation we've been in nationally, but also more importantly where local government finance is going to go in the next couple of years.”

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