The chief executive of Somerset County Council has imposed a spending freeze, in the latest sign of the catastrophic effects of the Tory policy of austerity. Staff have been told that what is called “non-essential spending” will be stopped immediately.
Labour says cuts in central government funding have left the county council in a position where it is struggling to survive. The leader of the council’s Labour group, Cllr Leigh Redman, said: “The government needs to realise that Somerset must be treated fairly. We are already at the bone and our services cannot sustain further cuts, the people we care for are suffering and this cannot continue.”
Not a popular step
County chief executive, Pat Flaherty explained the spending freeze in an email to staff, saying: “We’ve been talking for some time about how difficult this year’s budget setting is going to be, and emphasised the need to control spending. Sadly, the clearer the picture gets, the worse it looks.We all know the root causes of this – continued austerity and ever growing demand on our services, especially those for vulnerable children and adults.
“We aren’t allowed to operate with massive overspends and unless we turn a corner on spending we risk ending the year £7 million overspent. This would be unacceptable as it would deplete our already minimal reserves. I am therefore putting a freeze on all non-essential spending for the remainder of this financial year.
“This will not be a popular step and I accept that. I know that many of you are doing valuable work that doesn’t readily fit under the heading of a statutory service. What I am saying does not devalue that work, it simply accepts the painful reality that this council has to reduce its spending immediately if we are to be able to fulfil our statutory requirements to support the most vulnerable people in our communities.”
Rural councils disproportionately affected
Cllr Redman responded: “It concerns me that reading the email it may give the impression that some of our most needy may be at fault. The email lists ‘the ever growing demand on our services, especially those for vulnerable children and adults’ among the reasons for the spending freeze. I will agree that rural councils like ours are being disproportionally affected by funding cuts but the people we care for as a council are in no way at fault.
“The freeze on recruitment will have an effect on members of staff who are already working above and beyond their gradeNot filling vacant posts will add to existing pressures.“I call on the chief executive and leader of council to work with all opposition parties in working up this year’s budget. Working together will allow a smoother budget setting. Leaving full budget announcements till the last minute does not work”
Unions have reacted angrily to the announcement of the spending freeze. The secretary of West Somerset and Taunton Trades Council, Liz Payne-Ahmadi, said “The cuts will have a drastic impact on jobs and public services across the county. The trades council and the county branch of Unison have called a demonstration outside County Hall in Taunton from 9.15 next Wednesday (November 18th), to lobby members arriving for a full meeting of the county council.”