Call for 'meaningful consultation' on budget as £10million cuts planned at Northumberland County Council

A senior Northumberland councillor has promised a ‘meaningful consultation’ on next year’s budget as the authority looks to cut another £10million.

Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 2:21 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th November 2019, 2:21 pm
County Hall, Morpeth Picture by Jane Coltman

As previously reported, initial proposals detail £9.8million of efficiencies for 2020-21 and these were backed by the council’s cabinet on Tuesday, November 12.

However, this is subject to a seven-week public consultation ahead of the final approval by full council in February.

At a meeting of the corporate services committee, Coun Malcolm Robinson was concerned that the report, which described the purpose of the consultation as ‘to communicate the budget challenge’, sounded like a ‘PR exercise’.

But Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, said it would be ‘a meaningful consultation’, adding that the administration ‘has a good track record on that and changing policies when we receive that feedback’.

The report to councillors also explained that total savings of £16.6million have so far been identified over the revised medium-term financial plan period from 2020-23, as the authority looks to bridge a £36.4million shortfall over the next three years, with £12.8million of efficiencies having already been identified for the current financial year.

However, Coun Oliver warned that there is currently uncertainty around some of the figures, particularly looking further ahead than next year.

“Some of the information we need to finalise the budget for next year will not be available until after the General Election,” he added.

“We are working very cautiously on the basis of the worst-case scenario so that we are able to present a balanced budget at the full council meeting in February.”

He explained that the principles behind it include ‘a focus on invest to save where we can’ and ‘a real focus on protecting front-line services and on value for money’.

The lion’s share of the proposed cuts will come from adult and children’s services – more than £3million each next year, although Coun Oliver pointed out these ‘are very big areas of spend so we do need to make sure there’s contributions from all areas of spend’.

Nonetheless, Labour’s Coun Lynne Grimshaw raised concerns about this and the interplay between additional funding in recent years, underspends in certain areas and the need to protect vulnerable residents.

Chief executive Daljit Lally responded: “It’s about prudence and making sure we are spending the money well.

“You will never see a totally balanced budget, but they are very well managed and they are the biggest budget areas in this council.”

She explained that the authority was always good about ensuring that the funding is there for these services when it is needed, as part of the ongoing successful partnerships with the NHS.

In relation to the fire and rescue service, Coun Oliver said that ‘the targets going forward won’t be as stretching as they were, as set out in last year’s budget’, while the majority of the savings proposed in transport will come from the service for post-16 students, which is not costing as much as anticipated.

“It’s hard work, it’s not easy but we are confident we will be able to deliver the required savings and continue to deliver services,” he concluded. “Although the targets are quite stretching, we hope it won’t have an impact on our residents.”

The cabinet meeting also received an update on the mid-year (end of September) position for the current financial year, which predicts an overspend of £445,000.

Coun Oliver described this as a ‘pretty comfortable position with half of the year to go’ and a lower figure than in previous years.