Durham County Council chief warns of more brutal cuts

THE full extent of George Osborne’s additional two years of cuts is spelled out today as a council boss warns the North will find itself unable to provide the same standard of services as the South.

Simon Henig of Durham County Council
Simon Henig of Durham County Council

THE full extent of George Osborne’s additional two years of cuts is spelled out today as a council boss warns the North will find itself unable to provide the same standard of services as the South.

Durham County Council has gone through the Chancellor’s autumn statement and now predicts an additional £50m will need to be lost from its budget by 2017. Other councils are planning for similar amounts.

The move means that when rising bills and an aging population are added to the mix the council will be £171m a year worse off – a 40% reduction compared to 2010.

Last year Simon Henig, the Labour council leader, set out £123m of cuts up to 2015, bringing with it 1,950 job losses and scrapped posts. Mr Henig’s officers have now had to plan for a far worse scenario, one which the council leader says will usher in a radically different role for the council.

Mr Henig said: “We are looking at a future where we have to be thinner and leaner and our big worry is that we will be forced into a position where we are not able to deal with the needs of the people in Durham.

“And what is very obvious to me is that this is not a fair position. Why are we in a situation where a North-South divide is forced upon us?

“Why should an older person in Wokingham or Surrey be given the care they need by their local authority but an older person here face a situation where the council cannot fund the same level of care?

“I don’t understand why the Government would want to distribute the pain in this way, but that is what is happening.

“We have politicians nationally who are happy to say we need to make these moves to rescue the deficit, but they never say what the cost is at a local level. Well, this is it, services are thinned out but not in a way which is fair.”

In November the Chancellor told Parliament he was revising his budget figures to include further cuts and rising unemployment into 2017. This included an expectation that the number of public sector jobs set to go will rise from 400,000 to 710,000 as a result.

Durham councillors will next week meet to agree cuts being made as part of the initial four-year reductions. This £25m budget blow includes payment to the Government of £1m for landfill taxes.

Mr Henig said Durham and many other councils, including Gateshead, have turned down an offer from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles of money to help preserve weekly bin collections because of this tax.

Fortnightly collections, he said, help to increase recycling rates.

Adding to his problems is the public sector pay freeze. While Mr Henig has no choice in implementing the Government-ordered move, he has been told that he will be handed further cuts to his day-to-day spending grants.

The jobs implications of the extra two years of cuts have not yet been decided on. One area which Mr Henig says is likely to come under pressure is transport spending, including rural bus subsidies used to keep services going for hard-to-reach villages.

A public consultation on the cuts last year saw the council commit to safeguarding children’s and adult services, both seeing a budget increase in the next financial year, and winter road maintenance.

“What that means, though, is that other services have to see a reduction,” said Mr Henig. “We are investing in the services that are a matter of life or death, of care for the elderly or vulnerable children, even in winter maintenance to ensure people can drive to work safely.

“But it means the likes of libraries and swimming pools and leisure centres which we all like will have to be looked at.”

The council is considering plans to set up a trust to run services such as these in an effort to save more than £1m.

 

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer