Suffolk: Council votes through huge raft of controversial cuts

AFTER a six-hour council meeting, Suffolk eventually approved a controversial budget which will cut services – but leave the council tax unchanged.

It took six hours to agree the budget – which will save the authority some �42.5million – although when the vote came councillors voted along party lines.

Earlier, however, there had been a minor rebellion when seven Tories voted in favour of a Labour amendment which would have seen the retention of the school crossing patrols.

There were enough loyalists to ensure that the amendment was comfortably defeated.

Yesterday’s meeting began with three members of the public speaking in favour of retaining the school crossing patrol service.

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Leanne Shepherd, a lollipop lady from Lowestoft, told the council that roads were dangerous places for young children.

A child had been knocked down and killed in the town in recent years – and just a few weeks ago a lollipop man had been hit by a car and seriously injured.

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She was warmly applauded by councillors from all parties as she made her statement, as was parent Sue Miller who has children at Dale Hall School in Ipswich.

She had helped collect 800 signatures from the school which had been added to a 13,000-signature petition handed in at the county earlier in the month.

Tania Johnson, headteacher of Horringer Court Middle School in Bury St Edmunds, told the council how she had had to help patrol the road after the school lost its crossing patrol.

County councillor with responsibility for transport Guy McGregor told the speakers there was no doubt that school crossing patrols were valuable – but it was felt it would be better for them to be run by the communities they served rather than the council centrally.

Once the debate on the budget began, deputy leader Jane Storey – who is responsible for finance – said the council had been working on the budget proposals for many months before they had first been published last November.

She said: “It’s a funny old thing – to listen to some people talking about our budget proposals you would think that we had just made them up one day – not spent months and months, to-ing and fro-ing until we finally came up with the proposals.”

She dismissed calls for the council to raid its reserves to retain some of the threatened services. She said: “To raid these reserves leaves us short for future years – and we already are planning on having to find an extra �50m of savings next year – a total of �125m over the next four years. It would not be prudent financial planning to use the reserves and leave us with no funds for unforeseen in-year budget pressures, emergencies and the like!”

Opposition Liberal Democrat leader Kathy Pollard launched a highly-charged attack on the budget.

She said the administration appeared to be targeting services that would save a tiny amount of money but would cause maximum impact.

She said: “I see no opportunities for social enterprises and not for profit organisations in this budget, just a mad dash to make a statement and inflict as much pain and suffering as possible.

“It’s not the New Strategic Direction. It’s the New Sadistic Direction.”

She said the council had not spoken to people enough before making the decisions were made. “Where was the consultation on the household waste site closures? Staff had already been issued with redundancy notices. So no consultation and no possibility of divestment for our household waste sites.”

Once the opening speeches had been completed, the council debated a Labour amendment calling for the school crossing patrols to be retained and �229,000 to be moved from the council’s contingency to fund them.

Labour group leader Sandy Martin said his party had decided on the single amendment in the hope of attracting support from the administration.

He did get the support of other opposition parties – the Lib Dems, the Greens, the independents and the sole UKIP councillor, but only seven Conservatives backed the move.

Mr Martin said the saving was so small – about one and a half pence in every thousand pounds that the council spent – that it was not worth all the hurt that was being caused.

Mr McGregor said it was possible for councillors to use their “locality budgets” to work with communities to support school crossing patrols where they were considered especially valuable.

Conservative councillor Colin Hart said he would only be able to support the administration if they could produce documents that had been promised at the scrutiny committee in December explaining what the legal situation was for communities to take over patrols. When these did not appear he voted against the move.

He was joined by six other Conservatives – including Ipswich councillor Robin Vickery, who said that the issue was of major importance to people in his Castle Hill division. He could not support axeing the patrols.

Liberal Democrat moves to radically change the budget were also defeated. A motion proposing reinstating just over �6m in cuts and finding savings elsewhere was defeated with no support from any Conservative councillors.

Mrs Pollard said her group had consulted with council officers before coming up with the list of changes, which included retaining the school crossing patrols and retaining the fire control centre in Suffolk which the council’s budget paper said would cost �230,000.

County councillor with responsibility for public protection Colin Spence said the figure for the fire control was only a part-year figure and the saving over 12 months would be �400,000. “And if this were reinstated we would have to spend more on setting up a new control centre in Suffolk when the current one shuts at the end of the year,” he said.

At the conclusion of the budget debate, councillor with responsibility for adult care Colin Noble said the key point for many people would be the fact that council tax had been frozen.

He said: “I got into politics when they (pointing at the Liberal Democrats and then the Labour groups) put up council tax by 18.5% in 2004.

“We are keeping council tax frozen – and that is what a people want. A poll on the East Anglian Daily Times website just this week showed that 75% of people do not want to pay more council tax to spend more on services.”

The budget was approved by 43 votes to 18 with no abstentions.

After the vote council leader Jeremy Pembroke said: “ I didn’t enter local politics to cut public services. This situation is not of our making but we are the ones that have to face up to it.”

The axe falls on:

School crossing patrols: Lollipop ladies and men will disappear from outside the county’s schools as the entire school crossing budget – �230,000 – is axed, unless local arrangements can be made.

eXplore cards: Half-price bus and train travel for young people under 19 will no longer be funded by the council saving �1.7million, giving rise to fears of fewer youngsters staying in education because of travel costs.

Fire service: Some stations across the county will see their services cut and the control room will merge with Cambridgeshire.

Bus services: Subsidies for rural bus services will be slashed.

Meals on wheels: Older residents will lose out as council subsidies are withdrawn, with other threats remaining to council-run care homes and care for older people.

Parks: Management of the county’s parks could be given to other organisations such as the National Trust and Suffolk Wildlife Trust as council funding is withdrawn.

Waste: Seven of the county’s 18 household waste recycling centres are expected to close saving �800,000 – and opening times at those which remain are set to be cut.

Libraries: Jobs are under threat as the library service is forced to cut �350,000 from its administration budget, in advance of the “divestment” of 29 out of 44 branches which will happen next year.

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