Budget cuts force new thinking to services, says leader

Leicestershire County Council

Whenever our local politicians feel the heat, watch out for a public consultation process.

The results can provide a useful alibi and shield when difficult decisions are being made.

Leicestershire County Council has announced 700 additional jobs are facing the chop in a big round of further budget savings. For the first time in recent years, there's to be a council tax increase, going up by 1.5%

County Hall's Conservative leadership says its public consultation has shaped its spending priorities and which services are vulnerable to funding cuts.

Like many other big councils, it's having to find more cash for adult care and children's services to meet growing demand and legal obligations.

Volunteers needed

The days when finance chiefs could find low-bearing municipal fruit to chop have gone.

The message now is that core public services, such as street lighting, road maintenance, public transport, youth services, libraries and museums are in the firing line.

Many of Leicestershire's 53 libraries - especially the smaller ones in rural areas - are going to be offered to local communities to run for themselves.

One idea for museums, such as the award-winning Snibston visitors centre near Coalville, is to get a trust to take it over.

But what if there's no "Big Society" volunteers ready to step in?

Council cuts to force new thinking?

"We hope it will work. We'll have to work it out over the next few years," Councillor Bryon Rhodes, the council's deputy leader, told me.

"But the consequences are clear. If no-one comes forward, then they will close."

The council says it needs to find further savings of £110m over the next four years to bring its budget down by a third. The 2014-15 budget of £357m faces a 6% chop.

More savings

Its two neighbouring East Midlands Labour-run counties face similar pressures. Their cuts proposals are imminent. But those decisions too will be guided, they say, from public consultations.

Nottinghamshire is looking at a cut of £154m from its budget and the loss of 750 jobs.

Derbyshire needs savings of £157m by 2018. Jobs here are also on the line. Unions have warned that up to 1,500 posts are threatened. Labour-run Derby City Council has already announced 350 job losses over the next financial year.

"I'm continuing to take our case to the government but that's not enough," said Councillor Anne Western, Derbyshire's Labour leader.

"The challenge is how we protect some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

"There are still some things we can do at the county council to trim savings. We are looking at disposing of land and buildings we are not using."

The coalition government's deficit reduction programme aims to reduce local government spending by a third. But in the blizzard of big budget figures, it's easy to overlook one significant change to our councils since the last general election.

Take Leicestershire as an example: before George Osborne's austerity strategy, the county council employed 15,000 staff. Within the next few years, the payroll will be no more than 6,000.

Some will argue that many local services are being provided more efficiently now with less staff. Some services are simply no longer provided by the council.

I wonder if the impact of that will register in the public consultations.