County council approves budget to protect services

Northumberland County Council has approved a budget aimed at protecting frontline services and promoting growth '“ despite facing cuts of £58m over the next four years.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 09:06
County Hall, Morpeth, headquarters for Northumberland County Council.

Among the measures which were rubber stamped were a new, smaller and more cost effective council headquarters in Ashington, an ‘invest to save’ capital scheme which will save the authority £630,000 a year and almost £16m over the next 25 years.

The move forms part of the county’s regeneration strategy for Northumberland which is aimed at driving and encouraging growth in all market towns. The programme is ultimately aimed at generating about £369m for the regional economy.

At a meeting of full council members agreed a range of recommendations including approval of the revised Medium Term Financial Plan up to 2020 including the requirement to deliver budget reduction measures of £11.9 million in 2016-2017, £6million next year and £57.9 million over the next four years.

To help meet these challenging cuts the Council has had to undergo a radical transformation in the way it operates and delivers services.

In some instances this has resulted in some changes to services to ensure they can continue rather than being stopped completely; such as the relocation of some libraries into leisure centres and the development of one-stop shops of council services; proposals to introduce smaller fire engines, subsidised rural bus routes and a review of public toilets.

The council has also continued its commitment to investing in the county through its £352million capital programme which has already seen the opening of a new £21million leisure centre, ongoing work on the £30m Northern Bypass scheme, the start of a brand new bus station in the centre of Hexham and work on a number of brand new schools across the county.

At the meeting the Council also agreed to increase the council only element of council tax by 1.99 per cent, along with an Adult Social Care Precept of two per cent, meaning an increase for a Band D property of £28.55 over the year.

Council leader Grant Davey said: “Each year the setting of our budget becomes more challenging as our funding settlement from central government cuts ever deeper.

“We are doing all we can to keep vital frontline services; investing in town centres to kick start the local economy, generating jobs in the county, improving education and providing affordable housing. We’re also doing things differently – such as moving our libraries into other council buildings rather than shutting them.

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“However this is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve with such huge cuts in our budget. While some are quick to criticise the council for implementing the government’s cuts I don’t see the opposition making the case for what they would do or calling for more money for the benefit of people Northumberland.”

Cllr Davey also repeated his ‘deep concerns’ over the way the Government’s funding settlement is hitting rural councils.

Since 2011 the Council’s budget has been cut by £148 million. However over the next four years the Council has to find another £58 million to cut; leaving it with just £10.3 million of core funding from the Government by 2020.

Northumberland will be more badly affected than most – facing a further 82.5% cut in its core funding from Government by 2020 - above the national and north east combined authority average of 76.4% and 79% respectively and an expectation that we will raise more money locally through increasing council tax, building more homes and from business rates.

The core spending power assessment also does not include any allowance for the unfunded cost pressures which the Government have recently announced. These include the national living wage, the apprenticeship levy and the change in national insurance thresholds.

Cllr Davey said: “I’m deeply concerned that with this cut in core grant funding from the Government over the next four years, continuing to provide some services will be challenging.

“The Council will continue to use some of its reserves (£15.9 million over the next four years) to protect frontline services, and to help introduce these cuts.

“It must be recognised that reserves cannot pay for the ongoing cuts, so the way the Council delivers services will change and unfortunately some services may no longer be provided or will be reduced.

“We need to be clear that it will mean that residents will have to pay more for less but we will do everything we can to protect frontline services.”