Councils battle tough budget targets

By Ted JeoryCOUNCIL workers are braced for job and spending cuts as bosses prepare to cut budgets by more than £100million to meet tough Whitehall targets.

By Ted Jeory

COUNCIL workers are braced for job and spending cuts as bosses prepare to cut budgets by more than £100million to meet tough Whitehall targets.

Accountants have been drawing up detailed cost-cutting plans for councils across Essex, which must be delivered to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott by the end of next week.

The Government squeeze is part of the Gershon process in which the entire public sector must deliver £6.5billion of efficiency savings by 2008.

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At least half of the three-year savings must come from actual cash budgets, with the remainder found in service improvements.

Some councils have claimed their budgets were already “down to the wire” and public sector worker union Unison warned last night job losses would be resisted - and did not rule out industrial action.

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Greg Bryant, regional secretary, said: “The proposed cuts are huge. We will take some convincing that they can be achieved.

“There's bound to be a major impact on services and vital back office staff and the public needs to make a song and dance about it.”

The tough targets equate to 7.5% of council budgets by 2008, but many authorities have been able to include savings found in 2004.

Essex County Council has been ordered to deliver £104.2m savings by 2008 with £17.4m coming during the current financial year.

Another £34.7m is expected to be found during 2006/7 and a further £52.1m in 2008, but officials have not yet finalised how these targets would be met.

However, job cuts are likely because extra investment in technology will, over time, reduce reliance on support staff.

An Essex County Council spokeswoman said: “Our real efficiency target is how we provide the best possible quality of service, whilst ensuring every single pound of public money is spent in the most productive way.

“Frankly, that is a far more challenging target than simply how many pounds of public money we are going to spend.”

Terry Allen, leader of Tendring District Council, said its total savings would amount to £1.5m.

“The targets are unfair - we've been making savings for years and now we're being punished because others haven't. Something will have to give - and that could mean jobs,” he warned.

Colchester Borough Council has been told to deliver £3.8m savings by 2008 and Ann Wain, executive director, said there were no plans for job cuts - but refused to rule them out.

Maldon District Council, which needs to find £1.7m by 2008, and councillors have already agreed to save £24,000 by axing two administrative jobs, although no-one will be made redundant.

Andrew Claydon, chief finance officer, said investment in a new customer contact centre to deal with inquiries from the public would help, adding: “Over time, this measure would help us reduce the total resources employed.”

Braintree District Council, which has been told to save £1.4m within three years, has also launched a major business efficiency review of all its service areas.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said she could not currently comment on political matters because of the forthcoming General Election.

But Barry Quirk, Whitehall's efficiency champion for local government, said last year: “The new agenda of delivering identifiable efficiency gains provides councils with a fresh discipline that will ensure we focus on how best to get the most from taxpayers' money.

“There are brilliant examples of excellent practice in councils across the country - we need to know more about what works well and share effective approaches to efficiency gains.”

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