Monday, 25 October 2010

The cuts agenda

Cornwall Council's ruling Conservative/Independent administration today published their emergency budget proposals in response to the cuts that are being imposed by central government.

The first thing to say is that it is quite clear that cuts have to be made. The amount of money Cornwall will be receiving from the government in the form of grant will be being cut by something around 26.5% over the next four years (we will only find out for certain in early December). The administration has been planning on the basis of 30% cuts and I think they were wise to do so. But in the first (or a number) of disagreements with them, I believe that Cornwall should take advantage of the fact that the cuts appear to be less than first thought.

The 30% target demands that we make about £10.5 million of front line service cuts as well as lots of 'behind the scenes' cuts (see below). If the true grant cut is around 26.5% then Cornwall is spared about £8 million of these cuts. Yet the administration want to cut the full £10.5 million anyway. In my opinion, we should not be cutting front line services if we do not have to.

The vast majority of the proposed savings stem from what are described as being management actions. In other words, they are supposed not to be cuts affecting front line services.

I think that the majority of these changes, if not good news, at least live up to the billing of not affecting front line services. There are some pretty hard choices however. There is a figure of just over £7 million to be saved through cutting pay to our staff. Whilst a few highly paid chief officers grab a lot of the headlines, the majority of council staff are not highly paid. Any sort of negotiations with them over pay need to be handled with the utmost sensitivity. I personally think that we have no option but to enter such talks with staff, but I regret this necessity.

Other proposals include the stock transfer of council housing - over which tenants will have a say - and the proposal to move other services into 'Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs)' in order to make savings.

However there are some proposed management changes which will definitely hit services. Among these is an apparent plan to 'rationalise' the localism service. It is true to say that the community networks are a bit of a marmite feature among councillors - you either love them or hate them. Those councillors who tend to value the service more are those from further away from Truro and from the more rural areas. I certainly value the work that out local team do immensely. The plan appears to be to centralise the support we get. I think this would be a big mistake and have put forward an alternative course of action.

It's when it comes to the front line service cuts that the proposals become most contentious.

As predicted on Radio Cornwall, Adult Care will be asked to suffer the biggest single cut - of £4 million. Although this department has the biggest budget in the council, it is also the area with the greatest pressure through increasing numbers of clients.

Also foremost in the firing line is the libraries service. It is predicted that there will be two rounds of branch closures over the next two years to leave just a handful of remaining branches. The remaining few libraries will be combined with One Stop Shops whose numbers will also fall.

It is quite likely that Launceston - as with most of the rest of North and East Cornwall - will lose both its library and One Stop Shop. Although our leisure centre looks to be secure, the cuts would constitute a horrific abandonment of one of the major towns in North Cornwall.

One idea that seems to be being floated is that assets might be transferred to town and parish councils alongside subsidised services. As it was explained to me:

'A particular car park might have an income of about £40,000 per year and a library might cost £45,000 to run. If both were transferred to the town council then Cornwall Council could show a net cut of £5,000 on its balance sheet. If the town council could deliver the library service for £40,000 a year then it would be paid for by the car park income and so everyone would be a winner.'

Except that this relies on the town council being able to deliver a library service cheaper than Cornwall Council is able to do - something that I just cannot see is possible. Cornwall Council is planning to save lots of money through shared library procurement and other economies of scale which are not an option for town councils. Whilst the sort of service transfer might be possible with some services which are already being delivered by town councils (such as grass cutting), it is not an option for keeping libraries or leisure centres open.

The thing is that the libraries service is not an expensive one. The plan to close a double figure number of branches will save less than three quarters of a million pounds.

Another area which will suffer big cuts is public transport. Whilst the council has only just finished its public consultation on the latest local transport plan - in which they propose a vast network of community buses - they are planning on withdrawing their subsidy for community buses. There will be 27 routes which will see the subsidy taken away and the council predicts that the services which carry 460,000 people a year will be withdrawn as a result.

And, even more astonishingly, the council proposes to withdraw the funding it gives to enable 16-19 year olds to get to college. The claim is that colleges have not suffered as badly as councils and so they will happily step into the breach (as Truro College does for a few students) and pay the subsidy themselves 'because they need the student numbers'. Except that I just cannot see it working that way, particularly for students from further away who will cost more to transport. My area of Launceston has the lowest take-up of 16-19 education in Cornwall. Removing this subsidy is not going to help more young people from this area stay in education.

The report also helpfully lists some of the ideas that were considered but rejected by the Cabinet. One of these is the Council's presence at the Royal Cornwall Show. I think that it is good for Cornwall Council to be at the show, but I strongly question whether this three day event is more important than saving a well used library from closure.

It's too early to suggest exactly what should be cut instead of those services being proposed by the administration. The Liberal Democrat councillors have asked officers for lots of figures to help us come up with alternatives. We will aim to come up with costed alternatives to save the money that has to be saved but sparing our valuable front line services from closure.

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