Fresh council cuts warning

By Mark HeathCOUNCILS may have to make millions of pounds of savings as part of a wide-ranging review of government spending.The prospect, which could badly affect the county's already cash-strapped authorities, comes as Chancellor Gordon Brown pledged to find £20billion of efficiency savings across government departments.

By Mark Heath

COUNCILS may have to make millions of pounds of savings as part of a wide-ranging review of government spending.

The prospect, which could badly affect the county's already cash-strapped authorities, comes as Chancellor Gordon Brown pledged to find £20billion of efficiency savings across government departments.

The political battle over public service efficiency is heating up, with accusations that productivity is falling despite millions of pounds being pumped in by central government.


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Combined with the political hot potato of council tax rises, inefficiency and waste by local authorities is seen as a key battleground in the run-up to the next General Election.

But the recommendations of the forthcoming review by Sir Peter Gershon looking at how Whitehall buys goods and services is widely expected to spill over into local government.

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Fears are growing the Gershon Review and the public sector spending round could hit councils with a belt-tightening double-whammy.

However, with rising public hostility to council tax rises, local authorities have little room to manoeuvre to implement the statutory demands made on them by Whitehall.

The big question hanging over the review is whether councils will be forced to make more cuts to services to deliver.

David Rowe, deputy leader of Suffolk County Council, said it would be hard for the authority to come up with more savings.

"We made savings of £12million last year to set the council tax at 3.8. Clearly, it would be difficult to again make that amount of savings, but every year we make efficiency savings in the region of £5m," he added.

"Any savings we make do have some impact on services. For instance, this year as a result of having set a low council tax, there was an impact on things like school transport and sports centres.

"Clearly, we would try to minimise the effect on front-line services. I'm hoping that Gordon Brown would look at any saving requirement on councils in the context of what they've already done."

As part of its savings measures, the council will unveil today a partnership with BT and Mid Suffolk District Council, that will offer residents, visitors and businesses more cost-effective and easily accessible services.

Mr Rowe added: "We would always like to do things more efficiently and the partnership with BT is an example of that. Over a 10-year period, we'd be looking at around £10m of savings."

Peter Austin, leader of Waveney District Council, voiced his concern at the prospect of the authority having to make more efficiency savings.

He said: "We had a lot of difficulty trying to achieve £1m of savings last year to bring in a reasonable council tax settlement for the area.

"If we had to go much further, things would have to suffer and we would have to go back to the drawing board to look at everything we do and see what we could knock out.

"A lot of the actual increase in cost to us have gone on things like performance assessments and best value, which are a very costly and bureaucratic system to implement.

"If we got rid of them we could certainly save money - but the Government would have to get off our backs."

John Griffiths, leader of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, added: "We will have to consider the situation if and when it arises.

"We are constantly looking at ways to make ourselves and our services better value for money. I'm sure if Gordon Brown can come up with some way of making these savings while not affecting the services we offer to the people, we'd be more than happy to listen."

A Treasury spokesman confirmed the Gershon review would have wide-ranging effects beyond central government.

"It's across Whitehall departments. His findings will find their way into the spending review. Nothing has been published, but it's part of the process of the spending review," he added.

"Quite clearly some departments need to have money to fund local authority activities, so it has wider implications."

mark.heath@eadt.co.uk

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