'No escape' as Lincolnshire council faces up to cuts

By Greg Wood
Local government correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
All services are under the microscope as cuts loom

Council jobs and local services are facing severe cutbacks in the government's Comprehensive Spending Review - the details of which are due to be announced on 20 October.

How will they decide what should be saved and what should be sacrificed?

At the imposing headquarters of Lincolnshire County Council, one of the biggest in the country, their coping strategy is under discussion.

A dozen men and women are gathered expectantly round a boardroom table. They are here for a briefing on the impact of the spending review.

As the leading councillors and executives for this local authority, they are responsible for deciding which services in the county will be cut, and by how much.

Lincolnshire County Council is already halfway through a cost reduction programme designed to save £100m. But chief executive Tony McCardle is uncompromising - further cutbacks are inevitable.

"It does look like another £60m to £80m of savings now need to be found," he tells his colleagues around the table.

"There's no escaping the fact that some services we provide will have to be turned off, some others will have to be scaled down and indeed you may want to look at how some other services are provided, as to whether or not we go on providing them ourselves or we seek some alternative method of having them provided within Lincolnshire."

Local authorities are heavily dependent on central government for most their income. Their annual grant from Westminster is worth about £75bn.

But that sum is going to be reduced sharply over the next four years, as the government tightens the purse strings.

In Lincolnshire they expect the cut in the central grant to be at least 25%. Once the councillors here find out the precise figure, they will review their own budgets.

Other than money which is ring-fenced for a particular use - like schools - nothing will be off-limits.

All services, from highways to social care, will be under the microscope to see whether they can be delivered more cheaply, or by outside contractors, or whether they are needed at all.

One saving under consideration includes the provision of sheltered accommodation, with the council considering replacing wardens at every site with a duty warden covering a number of facilities.

Already affected by the looming cutbacks is Linelands Care Home, just outside Lincoln.

Elderly patients, many of whom have dementia or are recovering from operations, come to Linelands for the day, for rehabilitation or to socialise and give their carers a break.

The number of over-80s in Lincolnshire is set to double within 15 years.

Yet this home, along with seven others run by the county council, is earmarked for closure. Care worker and union rep Phyl Lyn says her patients are upset at the prospect.

"They're very worried," she says. "It's a service that's second to none. They don't want to lose it. It's all about choice and unfortunately the council are taking away that choice."

When asked whether people would consider day care centres like Linelands to be a truly frontline service, she insists it is.

"And it's keeping vulnerable adults at home for a lot longer. By people receiving day care, short-term care and intermediate care, you're saving a lot of money for the government.

"When people come out to day care they're being stimulated, they're meeting friends, they just enjoy it."

But this solidly Conservative county council sees things differently.

Leader Martin Hill says people have to realise that government, whether local or national, can't do anything and everything any more.

"You can't take a quarter of your budget away and pretend you can provide the same level of service. Yes, there will be some reduction in services or increased charges and that's the debate we're going to have with ourselves and make sure we involve the public as well."

Closures like the Linelands Care Home are just the start of a four-year process.

The councillors in Lincoln, as in local authorities up and down the UK, will be considering their cuts in the run-up to Christmas, before agreeing a formal budget next February.

For those who depend on their services, it promises to be a hard winter and a cold spring.

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