Savings `too little, too late'

PLANS to cut costs at Suffolk County Council were last night branded "desperate measures" taken to avoid huge council tax bills and win back public support.

PLANS to cut costs at Suffolk County Council were last night branded "desperate measures" taken to avoid huge council tax bills and win back public support.

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the council's Conservative group, also criticised the Labour-Liberal Democrat run authority, which hopes to make savings of 2% on its budget, for not pulling in the purse strings sooner.

But David Rowe, portfolio holder for strategic and financial planning, pledged that the £5million savings would only be made after the council has listened to the views of people living in Suffolk.

The 18.5% hike in tax bills this year provoked a public outcry and the council is now keen to avoid another controversial rise by saving money.

It will look at the 10% least important services in each department, except schools, to see whether a saving can be made.

Mr Rowe said: "It was not necessarily the wrong decision this year to increase the council tax by 18.5%. It was an investment in services. We recognise that it was not affordable and was not sustainable and that we could not have such a large increase in the coming year.

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"The main reason we have had a large increase recently is because we started from a very low base. We are only a few pounds per year more than Norfolk, so it is very comparable."

But Mr Pembroke said the savings were too little too late.

He said: "I am afraid they should have done it this year. They did not think about the implications of the rise. A lot of people simply could not afford it and its not going to go away. Even if they make savings the increases next year will be on top of the 18.5%."

The council intends to hold roadshows around the county and launch a budget website to see what services people think could be cut and what they think of the council tax rises.

But Mr Pembroke was sceptical that it was the most effective way of gathering people's opinions.

He said: "This is a torturous route of consultation. We have a magazine, which costs about £30,000 per quarter and I think it is the best and most effective way of consulting every single household."

Mr Rowe insisted vital services would not be affected. He said streamlining the council's organisation as well as reducing services no longer used by people and not a priority of the authority would make enough savings.

"People will not necessarily notice the savings as much as they think. The savings will not be in frontline services, such as the care of the elderly or children.

"We have made more than 100 improvements to our services and we will be continuing this throughout this year."

Mr Rowe admitted that balancing the cost of providing good services for the Suffolk people and not billing them for high tax was "difficult" but he said it was essential that residents get a fair say.

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