Council leader says savings will be a serious test

FAR from delivering a welcome respite from local and national financial woes, last month brought news that North Somerset Council must make �39million more savings than first thought.

Thanks to further cutbacks in public expenditure by the Government, the authority’s previous savings target of �47.3million over four years has now rocketed to �86.3million across seven years.

With many non-vital public services such as street cleaning and libraries now under threat and the potential of a council tax rise to meet the target, tough times are ahead for the council and the whole of North Somerset.

After the announcement of the new target, council leader Nigel Ashton said: “This additional �39million in savings will test us even further but we have given ourselves time to plan ahead so the right decisions can be made.

“However, there is no doubt these additional enforced savings will have a serious effect on local services.”

With the cutbacks likely to affect every area of life in the district, the North Somerset Times asked Councillor Ashton to answer some questions to shed more light on the economic situation and the tough choices ahead.

In his answers, he explains funding cuts and a council tax rise look likely but that the beleaguered authority is still ‘better placed’ than many other councils to face the ongoing economic storm.

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* Times: When did the council learn about the revised savings target?

Nigel Ashton: “The Government has not yet announced a final savings target but the council is constantly reviewing information from Government and modelling the likely outcome of the next financial settlement, which is unlikely to be known until December.

“Whilst this might mean the position may vary to some minor degree, it’s important that our residents, councillors and our staff have early notice of the significant challenge we all face.”

* Times: Will the authority lobby the Government for some help in dealing with the revised target? What other avenues might the authority look to for help?

NA: “The council will take all opportunities to lobby senior Government ministers, as with my recent visit to Downing Street and my meeting with Eric Pickles on September 27 at Clevedon.

“More meetings with ministers and civil servants are planned over the next few weeks.”

* Times: Have areas been identified for further cuts already?

NA: “No, not at this stage. Our recent announcement was very much the start of the process, and over the coming months we will review how best to deal with the challenge whether by reducing expenditure, increasing income, or potentially increasing council tax.

“In all likelihood, a combination of these to some degree will be required. However no decisions have been made as yet.”

* Times: Will any of the council’s non-essential services (ie not adult social care, children’s services and environmental services) disappear altogether?

NA: “No decisions have yet been made but all councils will have to look at priorities.”

* Times: Will a council tax rise be needed to help make up some of the target? If so, has the percentage by which it would rise been discussed yet?

NA: “No decisions have yet been made.”

* Times: Are there any plans to make cuts to essential services, especially adult social care as it takes up a large chunk of revenue expenditure?

NA: “The scale of the challenge will mean we will need to consider all options and all services, and our residents will expect us to be as efficient as possible, irrespective of the service.”

* Times: Do you still defend the decision to undertake the �26.8million office amalgamation project?

NA: “Absolutely – not defending but celebrating the decision, it is good news for all.

“The project halves the space the council previously occupied, and even after taking into account the capital costs delivers real savings of �700,000 per year.

“Without this project, and others like it, the council would be faced with identifying further reductions to front line services.”

* Times: Will there be any reductions to members’ allowances or expenses?

NA: “Members’ allowances continue to follow the recommendations of an independent review panel, and like staff payments, have been frozen for three years.

“We are however, recommending a reduction in the number of councillors.”

* Times: Will the council continue to publish North Somerset Life? How much does it cost to publish the magazine?

NA: “The council certainly will continue to publish its very popular North Somerset Life.

“At a time of such change, the council will need to communicate very clearly with local people who may be very worried about their valued local services. Life costs �247,524 a year to research, write, design, print and distribute to 93,844 homes every month. This equates to 22p per copy, well under half the cost of a second class stamp (50p).

“The magazine more than pays for itself many times over, for instance in encouraging the take-up of care services like Carelink, which helps older people to keep living in their own home, saving the taxpayer around �13,000 a year for every person supported in that way – a saving running into millions of pounds.”

* Times: Has the authority identified new revenue streams to bring in more money?

NA: “No, not at this stage. As I said earlier, over the coming months we will review how best to deal with the challenge whether by reducing expenditure, increasing income, or potentially increasing council tax.

“However no decisions have been made as yet.”

* Times: Will you be asking communities to help out and volunteer to keep some services running?

NA: “That’s certainly an option. Utilising both the private and voluntary sector has provided the residents of North Somerset with savings already, and we will continue to explore these avenues to see if they present us with further opportunity.”

* Times: Earlier savings saw some services outsourced, and others scaled down or halted, while a number of buildings were consolidated or sold off. Council services have been stripped to the bare minimum. How will further cuts on the projected scale be possible?

NA: “The council will continue to look at all the things you mention but there is no doubt this new round of savings are bound to have an impact on services.

“That is why we have made our announcement early and started our planning now so we can carefully plan our next steps rather than giving a knee-jerk response.

“We are better placed than most other councils who face similar cuts.”

* Times: People will be worried about what effect these cuts will have on quality of life in North Somerset. What assurances can you offer people it will remain a good place to live?

NA: “The whole country is facing reductions in funding. It is not just North Somerset.

“The full effects of the economic situation are now being seen, something the council has been concerned about for some time. However, where possible we will continue to look for service re-design rather than closure, but yes this is a huge challenge and there may be knock on effects to services.

“However, North Somerset will still be a fantastic place to live, with an excellent quality of life compared to other areas.”