HDC leader - how to save cash without service cuts

COUNCIL leaders in Huntingdonshire now say they can find millions of pounds of savings over the four years from last autumn without the predicted service reductions predicted by their predecessors.

A year ago residents were facing HDC having to cut more than 120 jobs, ditch its CCTV surveillance scheme, double parking charges and cut the opening hours of its call centre and leisure centres, and a reduction from �485,000 a year to just �85,000 in funding for charities, as it tried to deal with the large hole left in its budget by the coalition Government’s cuts.

And while the Council Tax precept was frozen in April, residents faced the prospect that it could rise by nearly 20 per cent in April 2012.

HDC was then planning a range of cuts, savings and increased charges amounting to �6.4million over the four years from November 2010 on the �35m-a-year elements of its budget that are not ring-fenced.

But that still left �2m of savings to be found over the same time period. HDC planned to plug that gap with Council Tax increases.

But a change of leadership and cabinet in April this year led to a different approach.

“The previous leadership started from the bottom up,” new executive leader Councillor Jason Ablewhite told The Hunts Post. “We have been taking a top-down approach.

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“We no longer have a mountain to climb, but a hill. We are convinced that we can get most of the �1m we still need through restructuring. We envisage further efficiency savings without impinging wholesale on frontline services.

“As part of that process we have reviewed CCTV and can keep some of that.”

HDC is hoping to attract funding from town councils in Huntingdonshire where the coverage is concentrated, and is expected to enter a partnership with a neighbouring authority – believed to be Peterborough City Council – next year, reducing HDC’s CCTV bill from �700,000 this year to around �300,000, or even lower if other councils join in the partnership.

Cllr Ablewhite said the new approach started with a change to the council’s management structure in the summer, which would enable some services to be provided by fewer staff.

“We have made the best part of �1m savings year-on-year without any impact on frontline services,” he said.

But it is the voluntary sector that is expected to notice the change of direction most.

“We have put around �50,000 back into the pot already this year, �27,000 of which has come from our own saving of having fewer cabinet members.

“I am determined to help the voluntary sector, but we still have to have a full review of voluntary services. We don’t fully understand what the voluntary sector actually needs to operate: in the past there was very little control.

“More and more over the years we have seen the council funding employment rather than volunteers. For example, 24 per cent of the money we give to the Citizens Advice Bureau goes into the local government pension scheme,” said Cllr Ablewhite.

“So we need the voluntary organisations to make the efficiency savings that they can to save us money over the longer term.”

The leader said employee redundancies had achieved considerably better savings than originally envisaged, and setting up a corporate office better aligned to the council’s services by the end of the year would save �100,000 annually.

“We have taken away the silo management culture, and we’re bringing support for the two managing directors and the members together.

“We have made fundamental changes to the management structure. We have to allow that to bed in before we go into the next phase.

“And we take our hats off to the extremely loyal staff, who continue to make significant efficiency savings.”