Hunts business should plug council’s charity black hole

HUNTINGDONSHIRE’S businesses should make up for the black hole council cuts have caused in charities’ budgets, senior politicians told them last week.

More than 60 companies accepted Huntingdonshire District Council’s annual invitation to a briefing on the coming year’s budget.

HDC leaders outlined a catalogue of cuts and charge increases, which battered business leaders seemed to take resignedly on the chin – charity support slashed from �375,000 a year to just �75,000, including a complete end to support for town centre partnerships, an end to CCTV town centre coverage unless someone else pays, a doubling of car parking revenues over five years, cuts here, cuts there, cuts everywhere.

It’s just the way it is and, if you don’t like it, plug the gap yourselves, Councillor Terry Rogers, cabinet member for finance, told the business chiefs, though he put it slightly less bluntly.

Asked about cutting grants to the voluntary sector, Cllr Rogers said: “Like everything else, it falls into the pot. Hopefully, as the economy improves, the business sector might wish to come on board and help the voluntary sector.”

The threat of turning off Huntingdonshire’s CCTV cameras is also causing some anxiety, though Cllr Ken Churchill, who is responsible for business development, claimed that 92 per cent of people in Hunts felt very safe in their local area during the daytime, and that crime in the area had reduced by 36 per cent since a decade ago.

He added that a recent consultation showed withdrawal of CCTV coverage was “identified as one of the areas that would cause least displeasure”. What he did not say was how many town centre businesses or residents were among the sample consulted.

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He did, however, complain that HDC was bearing most of the �300,000-a-year cost of maintaining and monitoring the recently-upgraded CCTV equipment, when most of the benefit accrued to other agencies, particularly the police, who were now having their collars felt for a bigger contribution.

Other savings would see companies starting to pay realistic costs for planning advice before they submitted applications, support for social housing abandoned, slower responses across the piece, and a general diminution of services outside key areas.

Charges would increase at leisure centres, opening hours would be cut, bar management could be privatised to stem losses, and managers’ focus would shift to provision of profitable activities.

Although HDC’s cabinet would clearly like to continue to offer a bit of cream, its focus will be on balancing the budget over the coming four years, it remains committed to some core priorities – waste collection and recycling, support for vulnerable people, support for healthy lifestyles, strategic planning and growth, and statutory functions including licensing, elections and regulation, according to Cllr Rogers.

Cllr Churchill’s focus is to be on transport, infrastructure, skills and funding opportunities.

Economic development support will carry on, mainly in officers’ time, rather than cash contributions, and senior councillors seem to have high hopes of the embryonic Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership. How much direct influence HDC will have remains to be seen: the LEP board is expected to have five local authority representatives. Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council will have two seats. Theoretically, the other three will be shared between half a dozen peripheral counties and the dozen or more districts included in the LEP’s geographical catchment.

In the meantime, a broadband project group set up with BT, with a pilot scheme in Broughton, and unemployment is starting to be a worry, even though local rates remain low.

“Worklessness has unfortunately become a feature of our district, with a number of professional people unemployed and young people particularly hard hit,” Cllr Churchill said.

He also had a NEET (not in employment, education or training) prevention group working with schools and with people at risk of leaving with no qualifications in the hope of giving them something to appeal to employers.

The leader, Cllr Ian Bates, also implored firms to do what the council no longer could: “We will need your help to increase the number of jobs locally and develop the economy,” he said.

But he suddenly realised how negative he and his colleagues were sounding in an area of the country that had survived the recession pretty well unscathed.

“Let’s not be too gloomy. This is a prosperous area. It’s a very nice place to live, with a good quality of life.

“We are also the sort of area that can get the Government out of the current economic climate.”