�160m Cambs budget cuts: council asks residents ‘tell us what to cut’

FREE and subsidised school transport could face the axe as Cambridgeshire County Council aims to save more than �160million over the next five years.

Up to 450 jobs will be lost in the coming year, seven per cent of the council’s non-schools workforce of 6,500, and that number could be greater in subsequent years.

In the absence of any steer from Whitehall about the level of Government funding for Shire Hall from next April, finance chiefs have been reading the runes in the Chancellor’s two set-piece public pronouncements since the General Election – the emergency Budget in June and the comprehensive spending review in October.

The controlling Conservative group was accused by the Liberal Democrats of bad fath and scaremongering.

The council’s working assumption is that Government grant will be cut by �18m from the current level of �150m, although the ‘Pickles Council Tax promise’ will yield an additional �5.8m if the authority decides to freeze its precept for 2011/12.

So difficult are the spending decisions going to be that senior councillors have today (Thursday) asked residents to help them decide what to cut.

One thing will almost certainly be school transport. “Eligibility for free and subsidised school transport is one of the things being looked at,” Councillor John Reynolds, cabinet member for resources, told The Hunts Post. “We are not at the [statutory] minimum, and I suspect there will be proposals.”

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The philosophy will be to put local communities at the heart of creating and delivering services, meaning that parish councils may be allowed to take on some county services with initial pump-priming funding from Shire Hall.

To some extent that has already been happening, with a number of youth clubs now run by communities, the day centre taken over in Fulbourn and the library in Somersham.

Before the General Election, the county council had been expecting to face a �95m funding black hole over five years, and had saved �18m in just the last year.

But Treasury decisions since May have ratcheted up the five-year savings figure – nearly 70 per cent more than previously thought, and reducing the non-schools budget by 11 per cent to �368m from next April..

The council said today: “Councillors are clear that the priority will be services for the most vulnerable and those who need the most support.

“This will mean moving away from some universal services and targeting particular groups of people, for example in the support given to children and younger people.

“The council will also look to devolve decision making, commissioning and running some services to local level, where people are best placed to decide what services they need. For example, this could mean subsidising fewer bus services and instead developing a more integrated community-based approach to public transport.

“Preventing people needing high levels of care and support and intervening early when people do need it will also be part of the approach. The council will also work more closely with individuals and carers on personalising care so that people take decisions which are right for them, giving them more choice and control over their care needs.”

Cllr Reynolds stressed that the changes would not mean withdrawing care from those already receiving it, but new clients should expect to be treated differently.

The council’s legal advice is that it is allowed to reduce levels of service it has to provide, so long as there is proper public consultation and a robust decision-making process.

The consultation to determine details of the cuts includes interviewing 250 people face-to-face, conducting briefing workshops for business, the voluntary sector and hard-to-reach groups, and encouraging the county’s residents to take part in an on-line survey in which they can say what they want saved and what they could live without.

“It puts residents in the position that we are in, of having to make some very tough decisions,” said Cllr Steve Criswell, cabinet member for customer service and ‘transformation’.

The consultation will give people the chance to say whether they would be willing to pay more in Council Tax to preserve services.

Councillors will be guided, but not ruled, by the outcome of the consultation, Cllr Criswell promised.

The county’s Liberal Democrats reacted angrily to the announcement, saying the county’s controlling Tories had sworn them to secrecy over future budget plans and then revealed spending cuts and job losses.

“Liberal Democrat councillors were told that they could not tell parish councils about county council savings and spending plans until it was clear how much grant would be coming from the government,” the opposition group said today.

“Parish councils had requested the information to allow them to set their precepts.”

The party’s leader, Cllr Fiona Whelan, said: “The Tories have put this out publicly before we have had a chance to speak to our parish councils.

“They claim they are putting local communities at the heart of their plans and yet they don’t even tell parish councils what they are doing.

“We were told we could not discuss any county council budget details until the Government settlement was known.

“We have not been told how much money we will receive from central government, and yet the Tories have already announced massive job losses and spending cuts. This is nothing short of scaremongering.

“The Tories’ poor financial management has left them in such a panic that they have been forced to put out this information just weeks before Christmas to try to soften the blow,” she added.