Tuesday, 9 November 2010

My thoughts on the Cornwall Council budget

In the last week of October, the draft emergency budget of Cornwall Council was published by the ruling Conservative and Independent administration.

This budget was prepared on the basis that central government funding would fall by 30% over the next four years, though there remains great uncertainty what monies will be available in the future. The announcement from the Coalition that the main cuts would be 7.1% per year appeared less onerous, but subsequent information suggests that the cuts might be worse than 30% overall.

It is claimed that Cornwall Council’s budget will generate “savings of around £160 million over four years with £75 million achieved next year.” It also proposes to hold negotiations about employees’ terms and conditions to “save” a further £20 million, and it has identified £10 million of cuts from front-line services.

Last week, “backbench” councillors such as myself had our first opportunity to consider the proposals in detail through five meetings of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committees.

I attended all five meetings and it was certainly a frustrating week. We heard much management-speak about efficiencies, rationalisation and streamlining, but in many areas we were presented with staggeringly little detail about how the so-called savings would be achieved.

The leadership of the Council has proposed significant cuts to a wide range of individual services, but clearly did not want their fellow councillors coming forward with anything more than minor tweaks.

They certainly did not want us to challenge the fundamental basis of the budget and its many parts.

But some of us did question how certain services such as Leisure could withstand a 44.8% cut or how Libraries could cope with a cut of 25.3%. We challenged whether such cuts were deliverable, whether they were appropriate in the first place or should be reduced in scale. We asked how council services might be affected and queried where redundancies might fall. Many of the responses were certainly less than illuminating.

There was more detail about some of the proposed cuts to front-line services and potential increases in charges. As a consequence, discussions about whether to increase the daily charge for Truro’s Park and Ride from £1.30 to £1.50, for example, took much, much longer than debates about the major restructuring of parts of the Council.

Pressure from members of the public and councillors has however brought a rethink in a small number of areas. The Cabinet backed down on their proposal to cut bus subsidies for evening and weekend travel, they agreed to look again at the loss of post-16 education transport subsidies and there was also a reprieve for Camelford Leisure Centre, at least for now.

The process continues and many of us intend to carefully scrutinise the emerging budget as carefully as possible.

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