Paving the way for cuts

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RADICAL changes to Northumberland County Council’s budget have been approved, paving the way for cuts of more than £46million in the next financial year.

Despite mass protests from unions, staff and members of the public at last week’s full council meeting drastic cuts which will see more staff made redundant and the loss of services, were given the go-ahead.

The budget includes a £46.5million savings package and a freeze in council tax for the next year. It is the start of four years in which the council has to save a total £111million. It is estimated that a further £23million to £30million will need to be saved from the 2012/13 budget alone.

Coun Andrew Tebbutt, executive member for corporate resources, said: “The council has undertaken a major restructuring of services, radical changes and reductions in management. Valuable staff experience has been lost through voluntary redundancies. The administration has paid tribute to staff that have embraced the need for change.

“I am pleased that we are not facing some of the more radical and controversial situations that other councils appear to be facing. Through innovative thinking and bringing services together we secured savings this year.”

The budget was passed after Lib Dems supported it, Labour opposed it and the Conservative-Independent group abstained.

Despite the financial challenge faced by the authority, the meeting heard that key front-line services including libraries, schools and leisure centres have been protected from cuts, with many of the savings coming from back office functions.

Peter Jackson, leader of the Conservatives, said the council had ‘eventually started the process of finding proper efficiencies’ but said many of the ideas in the budget were proposed by his group last year.

He added that rural areas where Lib Dem seats are not at risk have been ‘ruthlessly targeted for cuts and closures’.

The scaling back of Northumberland News to a quarterly e-magazine was welcomed, alongside a cap on charges for home care for the elderly.

Coun Jackson also criticised the lack of a long-term plan for the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, while money has been set aside for a new leisure centre in Ashington.

He added: “This budget will see too many services brought in-house. The administration is too timid in seeking out partners who will deliver a better service for less money. There are too many layers of management - too many chiefs and not enough Indians. There are too many non-jobs hidden in the paper-filled offices down the musty corridors of County Hall.”

After the meeting, he said: “The Lib Dems have got their priorities wrong. They are cutting care for the most vulnerable people in our society at the same time as they spend more than two million pounds on spin-doctors and consultants.

“The Lib Dems are continuing to pay council bosses more than the Prime Minister, at the same time as elderly people are forced to pay more to maintain their dignity. This is unmistakably a Lib Dem budget and Northumberland Conservatives do not support it.”

County council leader Coun Jeff Reid said: “The economic recession and national cuts in public spending have created an unprecedented and very challenging financial situation for councils across the country. It has been a long and hard road to balance the budget and some tough decisions have had to be taken along the way.

“We have looked very carefully at how we can reduce expenditure, increase income and make efficiency savings while minimising the impact on front-line services, residents and council staff.

“It is inevitable, given the level of savings required, that some cuts have had to be made however, protecting front-line services has always been a top priority for us and the council’s investment in key services such as highways, children and young people, adult services, leisure and libraries remains strong.”

A full copy of the report, including a detailed break down of all savings can be found at www.northumberland.gov.uk/budget