Huge cuts revealed to keep tax down

SWINGEING budget cuts of £24million and 119 job losses have been ordered by Suffolk county councillors as they battle a loss of Government grant and their pledge to keep any increase in council tax to a minimum.

SWINGEING budget cuts of £24million and 119 job losses have been ordered by Suffolk county councillors as they battle a loss of Government grant and their pledge to keep any increase in council tax to a minimum.

Adult social care will be hardest hit, with more than £14m of cuts, including the introduction of day care charges for people with learning difficulties.

In children's services, cash support for foster carers is to be slashed by £393,000 in a move which officers advised will be controversial.

Other proposals include reducing £685,000 from the roads maintenance budget, withdrawing support for more than 25 bus services, and moving fire brigade headquarters staff across Ipswich to the County Council's main offices.

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Suffolk has received a 2.9% increase in grant towards council services from April 1 and has been told by ministers that it can expect a 5% for the financial year 2007-8, the first time central government has given a commitment beyond one financial year.

Education has been exempted from the cuts because Whitehall has given a budget increase of 5% directly to schools.

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Council leader Jeremy Pembroke, who took charge of the county when the Tories gained control last May from the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration, made no secret of his anger at the Government for only giving the County Council an extra £4m. “Our costs are increasing by £28m a year, which means we have to find these huge savings.

“Last year, the County Council received an extra 6.7% plus a one-off £3m in the Chancellor's Budget so that the authority could keep council tax rises to a minimum in a cynical pre General Election giveaway. This year, what we have received is miniscule by comparison.

“The budget settlement from the Government was devastating. This is the worst settlement there has ever been for this particular authority.

“Central government has failed to fund adequately the work of this county council, and particularly the needs of the people of Suffolk.

“When we have been out and about consulting the county's residents, we have been told time and time again that they are not prepared to accept huge tax increases.

“We have pledged to keep that increase to as low as possible and will not renege on that - we are very mindful of people on low and fixed incomes who cannot pay large rises because their gas, electricity and petrol prices are all going up.”

Mr Pembroke said that even if the council was minded to raise council tax significantly, the Government had made it quite clear it would cap rises of 5% and more, which meant that savings and efficiencies had to be found.

His predecessor as leader, Labour's Bryony Rudkin, said her group would present its budget in February with alternative savings. “Suffolk has been given a two-year budget by central government but has only produced a one year programme which has brought all this clamour for massive savings.

“The leaders of the council have a responsibility not to worry vulnerable people and their carers. They have failed in that duty.”

Although the council is to cut 119 jobs, it is hoping not to make any compulsory redundancies but to reduce the full and part time workforce through natural wastage.

The biggest local government trade union, Unison, put the blame for the budget crisis on the Government. Malcolm Gibbs, the acting branch secretary of the Suffolk County branch, said: “It is down to Whitehall because it controls the purse strings. But the Tories won control of the council promising a low council tax increase so they have little room to manoeuvre.

“Any job losses are of concern and we will be working with councillors during the 90 day consultation period to keep any compulsory redundancies down to a minimum. We want to ensure all members of staff are treated equally and fairly.”

Chris Mole, Labour MP for Ipswich, a former leader of the County Council who is now a Private Parliamentary Secretary in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - the Government department in charge of local councils' finance - dismissed the proposed budget cuts as political posturing.

“While this year is a tight settlement, it is more than the retail price index and is far more generous than the real term cuts of 7% which the Conservative government inflicted on Suffolk between 1993 and 1997.

“Suffolk has been promised an increase of 5% the following year and I want to know why they are talking about such drastic action when they are able to set a budget lasting until March 2007.

“Local government leaders have been calling for a long time for three year settlements so that they don't have to budget piecemeal - they have now been given an interim two year settlement and they should not be adopting draconian cuts.”

Mr Mole said: “Of the cuts, £14m are on procurement and cost efficiencies which I would have hoped they would have addressed in any event and without reference to the council tax settlement from central government.”

Suffolk Coastal Tory MP John Gummer said Mr Mole “never supports Suffolk, just the Labour Party”. He said: “He made no protest when the Labour led council put up the council tax by 18.5%.

“The Government has changed the way in which the grant has been drawn up and has blatantly taken away cash from rural counties and given it to urban authorities in the north and midlands.”

Kathy Pollard, leader of the Liberal Democrats on the County Council, said the budget proposals were a “high risk strategy” especially as they related to adult care and children's services.

But she had some sympathy with the Conservative administration which had been placed in a very difficult position by Whitehall. “National governments of whatever party have no time for local government - in my 18 years as a councillor, we have never been treated with any respect and they have never been able to get the grant formula right.

“There are now very few counties which are controlled by the Labour Party and I think this year's grant settlement to the counties is part of the Government's agenda to abolish county councils. District authorities have been given a far bigger increase in cash than the counties.”

The budget proposals will now be scrutinised by councillors at special committee meetings and a final decision on next year's spending will be taken on February 2 by the Executive Committee, which will then recommend next year's council tax figure for ratification at a full meeting of the authority at the end of that month.

Reg Hartles, Chairman of the Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk (PACTS), said the county was heading in the right direction by looking at staffing levels and aiming for an inflation only council tax rise.

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