Council cuts ‘could threaten Hunts economy’

MAKING the wrong decisions on local government cuts could be extremely damaging to Huntingdonshire’s economy, business leaders say.

MAKING the wrong decisions on local government cuts could be extremely damaging to Huntingdonshire’s economy, business leaders say.

The Huntingdonshire branch of the Federation of Small Businesses is particularly concerned about the decisions that could impact on the attractiveness to shoppers of town centres in Huntingdon, St Neots, St Ives and Ramsey.

“We have already seen the signs that councillors are happy to take easy decisions, rather than the right decisions,” FSB chairman Malcolm Lyons told The Hunts Post. “Closing public toilets in most of the towns was a silly thing to jump on straightaway.”

But Mr Lyons is concerned that Huntingdonshire District Council, which is facing the need to cut up to �8million a year from the �35m discretionary elements of its budget, could do even more damage to his retailer members’ businesses.

“We’ve heard plenty about ‘clone towns’, but what we could be looking at here is dormant towns or even ghost towns. We’ve seen it starting with toilets. What we don’t want is for councillors to cut back on markets or replacing flowers with shrubs in municipal flower beds – the sort of attractive things that bring shoppers into the market towns.

“I’ve heard rumours – though they’ve been denied – that they were considering selling off the farmers’ market stalls. The reason they were bought originally was to make the markets attractive to people walking round them,” he added.

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“We could end up with it not being good for shopkeepers if they don’t dress the towns properly. It’s great news that Huntingdon has won a gold award [in Anglia in Bloom], but woe betide councillors who think that’s an easy thing to cut.

“It’s the little things that are important to town and the people who are attracted to them. But they are easy to cut, and there’s a real risk of councillors’ decision-making being too simplistic.”

Local businesses would like to see HDC looking at more sophisticated ways of saving money, such as transferring management of the district’s five leisure centres to private operators, he said.

But HDC’s support for economic development, which has in the past been effective in encouraging new businesses to open up and thrive, is seen as a simple target for cutting back or abandoning, in spite of the implications for jobs and the business rate base, Mr Lyons said.

“I accept that cuts are important, but councillors must think about the communities that our businesses are a core part of.”

Councillor Ken Churchill, whose executive responsibilities include economic development, said: “The council has to make significant savings over the next few years, and has already identified ways of making economies such as sharing services with partners and reducing staffing levels.

“During the summer it carried out a public consultation to gauge preferences for a balance between service reductions and council tax increases, and identify where savings would gain the most support or cause the most dissatisfaction.

“The information gained will help councillors when they formulate their budget proposals for the coming year.”