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Council takes on "monumental" budget task

11 February 2016

Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council will maintain its focus on protecting the areas and people most in need as it tackles more reductions in Government funding.

The Council has adopted a carefully planned and managed approach as it has adapted to funding reductions of £52million in the last six years.

And this will continue as the Council grapples with a projected further reduction of £21million over the next four years.

This would bring the overall reduction in Government funding faced by the Council to £73million (a reduction of 61 per cent by 2019/20).

The Council's Cabinet meets next week to consider a budget for 2016/17 and Medium Term Financial Plan for the following three years up to 2020.

Council Leader, Councillor Bob Cook, said: "No matter how you look at it, there's no getting away from the fact that taking £73million out of the Borough each year leaves us with a monumental task to balance the books.

"We've heard suggestions that if you use the new government measure of 'core spending power' we will have the same or greater 'core spending power' by the end of this Parliament.

"But what this fails to recognise is that this model assumes that the reduction in government funding to the area can replaced with year on year Council Tax increases and year on year implementation of the government's adult social care levy.

"Worryingly, it also assumes that we will increase tax receipts through the building of 1,600 new homes per year in our Borough. Considering the Borough's current growth is about 450 homes per year, the government are pinning their spending power claims and funding reductions on an extraordinary, not to mention unlikely, housing boom. Increasingly local people are picking up the tab for national cuts."

In September last year, full Council agreed the latest of its long running programme of savings proposals, including a series of detailed reviews of front line services to build on the £34million of savings already delivered. The latest programme follows on from five years of intensive work to deliver savings through invest-to-save initiatives, targeted joint working with other authorities (such as the Xentrall partnership with Darlington and shared Tees Valley working arrangements for out of hours emergency social care services). The programmes to date have also introduced new ways of working and carefully managed reductions to services.

Staff numbers overall have been reduced by more than 800 over the last six years and since the start of the new savings programme in September, a further review of senior management has been completed, saving £800,000 per year. The new structure ensures that organisation is positioned well for the future and can deliver the next round of savings which could see staff numbers fall by a further 400 over the next four years.

The reviews of front line services are ongoing and developments in five of them will be included in next week's report to Cabinet.

These reviews affect libraries, Care For Your Area, Environmental Health and Trading Standards, Community Transport, and Children's Centres.

Councillor Cook said: "When I became Leader in 2011 I made it clear that managing the cuts in a way that protected the vulnerable and those areas most in need was our top priority. It's more important than ever that we stick with that approach.

"We've done all we can to protect the front line in recent years but the scale of the challenge we are faced with means we have arrived at a point where we have no choice other than to make further cuts to the front line, and this will be even more noticeable. We've managed to maintain levels of service above the statutory minimum levels available in many areas but unfortunately this won't be able to continue.

"We understand that every one of our services is important to someone, and we would rather not be faced with this situation, there are no easy answers."

He added: "We are proposing to close Egglescliffe Library once the refurbishment of Yarm Library, which is less than a mile away, is complete. We will continue to seek a partner to co-locate with Fairfield Library but propose to close it if none can be found.

"In Care For Your Area, we'll be seeking approval to make £650,000 worth of savings by scaling back services like grass cutting and street cleaning and reducing the number of planted areas and replacing them with low maintenance schemes

"In Environmental Health and Trading Standards we're seeking approval to reduce some out of hours enforcement services, and introduce charging for some aspects of pest control, which would save £230,000 per year.

"We're also carrying out a review of community transport policies with a focus on our home to school transport services and the transport we provide to adult social care users and carers.

"And we're undertaking a fundamental review of the role, purpose and delivery model for the 12 Children's Centres in the Borough.  With the aim of further targeting the centres to serve the most disadvantaged communities and offer a range of targeted support services.

"As part of the reviews we'll be consulting with residents and service users and we'll be sticking to the principle that we will target services to the areas or people in most need."

The latest round of front line service reviews are not enough on their own to meet the budget gap.

In addition to the reviews, a 1.9 per cent Council Tax increase is proposed as well as a proposal to charge the Government's 2 per cent adult social care levy.

Councillor Cook said: "We have a long history of strong financial management and that will stand us in good stead as we continue to tackle these unprecedented financial challenges.

"We are proposing a 1.9 per cent Council Tax rise, implementation of the Government's 2 per cent adult social care levy, and increased use of reserves, which we have as a result of our sound management.

"We've come under fire in recent years for holding reserves but the fact is we will need to use £6.7million of reserves to help plug next year's budget gap alone and a further £2.6million the following year. Without them we'd be looking at drastic and immediate cuts across the board.

"It won't be an easy decision to increase Council Tax - even by the small amount of 33p per week for the majority of residents - but this, the social care levy and use of reserves are needed to allow time for savings to be delivered.

"We're also proposing another freeze in members' allowances having already reduced the number of Cabinet, Chair and Vice Chair positions.

"But though this is the toughest time this council has ever faced, we do remain ambitious for the Borough as evidenced by our commitment to investments like the new leisure facility in Ingleby Barwick and continuing efforts to support business."

The Council's Chief Executive, Neil Schneider, said: "Our staff continue to work extremely hard to deliver services during this most challenging and uncertain of periods and I'd like to thank them for their commitment in the face of growing pressure.

"While we go through this process of enormous change, our ambition remains and we are absolutely committed to making the Borough of Stockton-on-Tees a great place to live, work, play and invest."

The Council's 2016/17 budget and Medium Term Financial will be considered by Cabinet on Thursday, February 18.

Cabinet will then make recommendations to full Council, which meets on Wednesday, February 24 to set the budget and agree the Medium Term Financial Plan.