Suffolk: Why can Norfolk protect libraries and school crossing patrols, yet we can’t?

THE contrast between the way Suffolk County Council and their Norfolk counterparts are proposing to make more than �250million of savings is stark.

While Suffolk’s planned cuts – affecting the school crossing patrols, libraries and care homes – have sparked controversy, in Norfolk the news is not looking as bleak as some had feared at the end of last year.

The changes were made after Norfolk held a “Big Conversation” involving thousands of residents of the county.

It does not have a masterplan to reshape the county in the style of New Strategic Direction – although Suffolk’s leadership has emphasised that most of the cuts being proposed currently are not linked to a restructure of the county council.

In Norfolk the county council is making �60m of savings in the next financial year as it starts to plug a �155m shortfall over the next three years.

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Suffolk is looking to cut �43m from its budget next year as part of a three-year programme aimed at bringing savings of �110-�125m.

Suffolk has yet to publish exact details of the cuts it proposes to make. They will be discussed by councillors next month when the budget is set.

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But a list of proposed cuts published in December set alarm bells ringing.

The county’s entire school crossing patrol service could be scrapped and subsidies for public transport could be slashed, leaving quite large communities like Eye without a scheduled bus service.

This week it emerged that the future of 29 of the county’s 44 libraries could be under threat if community groups do not come forward to run them.

And a question mark hangs over the future of the county’s 16 residential care homes – six could be closed to save money and the rest could be transferred to private operators.

In Norfolk the county published a list of possible service cuts last autumn – and invited residents of the county to have their say.

This week the results of that were published as the county prepares for its budget-setting process.

Norfolk’s school crossing patrols had been under threat, but after the consultation, the county council has decided they should be retained.

Norfolk had already pledged that no libraries would close – that pledge was maintained although opening hours at some libraries will be reduced.

A threat to cut �1m in public transport services was reduced to �420,000, meaning that only three services are likely to be axed altogether.

Norfolk has set up its own company, Norse, to run some services including care homes – and there are no proposals for a widespread transfer or closure programme for these.

In Norfolk the cuts seem set to fall hardest on the youth service. And Norfolk is set to cut back very seriously on capital spending on major projects like upgrading schools and road repairs.

The budget for these are set to be cut from �205m to �75m.

Suffolk’s road maintenance budget has not been targeted for major cuts – although Liberal Democrat opposition leader Kathy Pollard feels that it is an area that should have been looked at.

She said: “The road maintenance has not been seriously tackled by the county council and there could be some significant savings there. I don’t mean work filling in potholes – I mean saving on things like putting in kerbs on rural roads.”

She liked the Norfolk approach to consultation: “It would have been very helpful if Suffolk had gone down the same route as Norfolk to ensure that residents and other parties were consulted about their priorities.

“They would have found out that services like school crossing patrols and rural buses are greatly valued in the county.”

Suffolk deputy leader Jane Storey, who is responsible for resource management and transformation said: “In December, the Secretary of State for Local Government announced the provisional local government finance settlement for 2011-12.

“The figures clearly showed that, as we had expected, the level of funding being made available to the county council will be significant reduced, compared to previous years.

“We remain committed to protecting the vulnerable people across Suffolk as well as supporting the local economy but we have to make savings of more than �40m by the end of March 2011. We do not want to make reductions to frontline services but with this level of savings it is inevitable this will impact on everyone to some degree.

“No decisions have yet been taken in relation to the proposed savings that were published in November.

“Consultation relating to the proposals is ongoing, so if the community, the unions, local councils or other partners have better suggestions about how we can save local services and still find the �43m savings needed, we will listen and work alongside them.

Both councils are looking at major job losses – in Suffolk the council expects to lose 1,472 jobs during the two years to April 2012, 14% of its non-schools workforce.

Norfolk is looking at 750 job losses over the next year as part of a 1,300-post reduction over a three-year period.

Essex County Council has still to publish a budget for next year – it is expected to reveal details in February before a full council meeting at the end of that month.

However it is not expecting to close any libraries as a result of cutbacks.

An Essex spokeswoman said: “Essex County Council is reviewing the services it provides in response to the financial demands on the authority.

“This includes Essex Libraries who are currently considering future operating levels.

“A consultation is under way and we wish to speak to our staff, customers and partners about our proposals before any decision is reached and further information is released.

“For clarity the proposals do not include the closure of any library sites or the privatisation of the service and no communities will lose their library service either static or mobile.”

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