At today’s (Wednesday 20th February) annual budget setting meeting of Somerset County Council the Tory controlled administration will push through £16 million of cuts this year. The majority of the proposed cuts fall on the most vulnerable and on front line services for the public of Somerset.
The Labour party is demanding that the Conservative leadership of Somerset County Council reconsider their priorities and refocus on the needs of the people and businesses of Somerset.
Cynical use of reserves
The Labour Party also condemns the cynical use of £5.6 million of reserves in the budget in order to mitigate the deepest cuts in the run up to the election. This merely postpones the worst until after the next election. Cuts for the next two years are projected to be even deeper, with savings of £26m in 2014/2015, and a further £24m in 2015/2016. It is impossible to envisage how a reduced budget of this level can be achieved without a serious detrimental impact on the physical environment of Somerset and the public who make use of the services the County provides..
The cuts are being imposed while the County Council continues to spend £4 million on a refurbishment of County Hall and a further £3 million on consultancy services over an 18 month period to support its misguided and delayed reorganisation of the Council.
Not putting the people of Somerset first
By contrast the service areas where the greatest cuts are falling show that the County is not putting the people of Somerset first. Proposed cuts include £7.69 million to Commissioning of Care over the next three years. This funding is what the County Council uses to pay care providers to care at home for vulnerable and elderly residents in the community. The concern must be that by cutting the amount the County pays to providers may negatively impact on the quality of care service users receive.
Despite promising in their last manifesto on reducing potholes in Somerset Highway services are being cut by £600,000. The Highways Safety Defect budget is seeing a £555,000 cut. With potholes occurring at their highest rate in three years this is a clear example of the failure and broken promises from the Tories in Somerset.
The Tories believe these savings will be achieved by managing the risk of safety defects. What it means in practice is an increase in risk to all the road users of Somerset.
Waste services slashed
Already we have seen how short sighted cuts to services by the County Council can actually increase costs. Waste services have been slashed in the County, with opening hours at tips reduced and charges for recycling increased, which has predictably led to an increase in illegal fly tipping though out Somerset. The clear up cost of this fly tipping outweighs any up front budget saving.
The mistakes made over the library closures highlight the risks of ill considered and rushed savings. The County Councils attempt to push through the closure of libraries in the county landed them with a High Court judgement against them and the tax payers of Somerset with a bill of £200,000. Money that could now be better spent on preserving services.
Stores up problems for the future
Councillor Andrew Govier, Wellington and Labour Group Leader, said:
“‘This is another disappointing budget that only stores up problems for the future. The areas that have been hit don’t make any sense. They are cutting preventative services while having to pay for more children to be put into care. The children and families of Somerset have been hit particularly hard in the last four years and this is a further blow to them. 80% of the Youth Services budget has gone already. SCC has received an additional £770k from the government and I sincerely hope that this can be used to save services rather than propping up our reserves.
Cuts are being imposed on Early Years children’s education, children’s centres, transport for secondary schools and for Special Educational Needs pupils, social care, and Learning Disability support. The leadership of the County has in the past talked about how vulnerable people are their priority; if so it’s not readily apparent from the service areas where the greatest cuts fall
I am deeply concerned about the job losses and the effect that they will have on the individuals and on the local economy. We have already seen that a lack of capacity in County Hall causes services to get into difficulties. I hope that we can stop some of these cuts going through and take another look at how these savings could be made without effecting front-line services.”
No Clear Lib Dem plan
Neither is it clear that the Liberal Democrats in Somerset have a clear plan to fix the problems of Somerset should they win power in May.
Councillor Dave Loveridge, Bridgwater North & Central, said:
“The Liberal Democrats in Somerset are in denial of their party’s support for the cuts to local government. All four of the Lib Dem MPs in Somerset have voted in favour of the cuts that are now causing such pain in Somerset. The Lib Dems have also failed to effectively oppose the decisions of the Conservative cabinet over the past four years. Some of the measures in their proposed alternative budget are welcome, but they are tinkering on the edges while not addressing the huge problem of massively reduced government grants and reduced revenue through council tax. We also do not believe that their proposed £10 million of savings to backroom services at the County Council are realistic or achievable.
On backroom services we note that the Lib Dems have nothing to say on South West One. A venture with IBM to provide IT and backroom services to the County Council, this was a Lib Dem initiative that they imposed on Somerset during their tenure running the Council. Indeed Sam Crabb, the current Lib Dem leader in Somerset, was a great supporter of South West One in the past. It has been an utter failure that has vastly undershot the predicted savings and has also hindered efforts by the current Tory administration to make the needed current savings. With the Lib Dems in Somerset unwilling to come clean and own up to the mistakes of the past we can have little faith that lessons have been learnt. Only the Labour party has the clarity of purpose and the values needed to clear up the mess that the Conservatives have made of Somerset”