A massive cuts package is set to hit Lancashire residents after an “austerity budget” of nearly £65m in cuts was voted through by county councillors last night following seven hours of debate and adjournments
The ruling Labour group, which proposed savage cuts to services ranging from closing 40 libraries to save £7m to ending all public bus subsidies and withdrawing council support for the Knott End ferry, made some concessions to campaigners.
Funding was reinstated for Blackpool Tramway, the flood risk budget and to reduce the proposed cuts to transport for the severely disabled. In total some £614,000 was put back into those three services.
Council tax for 2016/17 was also approved. A 3.99 per cent increase will see Band D payers charged £1,174.86 in 2016/17. Some 2 per cent of that increase will go directly to the social services budget.
After the meeting Council leader, County Coun Jennifer Mein, said: “We face an unprecedented financial challenge as a result of relentless cuts in central government funding combined with a rising demand for our services, which means we’ve had to take a number of extremely difficult decisions.
“We are acutely aware of the impact of these decisions and have listened to the views of local people before finalising the budget.
We are acutely aware of the impact of these decisions and have listened to the views of local people before finalising the budget
“We’ve had no choice but to cut a number of services that people value, because the council simply can’t afford to deliver them anymore.
“I cannot explain just how difficult it is to make decisions like these and yet the reality is that there are more ahead as the council will have to find a further £200m of savings by 2020.”
She warned of difficult times ahead as the council will need to make more cutbacks to within its means, adding: “We also need to spend the council’s useable reserves to balance the budget over the next two years and it is not clear at this point how we will be able to deliver even statutory services beyond that point.”
The cuts package means the stage is now set for a restructure of county services, more job losses, the creation of new Neighbourhood Centres and the sell-off, or mothballing of, many public buildings.
In a surprise move Labour’s Deputy Leader David Borrow revealed that transport to day care centres for the elderly and disabled would continue with new arrangements – there is to be a merger of services taking disabled youngsters to school and adults to day centres.
The county council will now use its own fleet of travel care buses to provide transport for more than 1,000 elderly and disabled people. The buses will also continue to be used separately for their current role of taking children with special educational needs and disabilities to and from special schools.
But hopes that the planned £7.5m cuts to public bus service subsidies would be reversed or suspended for further consultations were dashed, despite attempts by the Conservative opposition to get the ruling group to think again. Coun Graham Gooch warned that the council risked a judicial review because of flaws in its consultation procedures.
The bus issue was returned to again and again in the meeting with worried passengers, including many onbserving the meeting from the public gallery, offered some hope with the news that a cash pot had been set aside to fund solutions for areas worst-hit by the cuts and a cross party group is now meeting to consider how to best meet local needs.
The Labour group – which knew it would need to look to other parties for support to get its budget through – made other concessions.
Independent and Green members wanted a further £3m contingency fund set up to provide a cushion of cash support if needed to help with what will be radical changes to slimmed-down services.
They also demanded cross party cabinet working groups be created to “explore and support” the changes in services “in consultation with interested parties.”
Meanwhile, there was a surprise when a Tory amendment to relocate some £500,000 of funding to the highways budget was approved unanimously. This was on top of Labour announcing a Highways contingency reserve of £1.4m.
For some older Wyre residents there was a bonus – Coun Borrow revealed they can use their NOW cards to access Blackpool Tramway.
Councillors were told talks were continuing to find ways of ensuring five closure-threatened museums could be run by other bodies or groups.
At the start of the meeting Coun Borrow had spelt out the full scale of the financial challenge facing the county noting that in addition to the £65m cuts newly proposed for 2016/17 there were millions of pounds worth of cuts agreed previously which would also need implementing in 2016/17,while the council faced yet further cuts in government funding.
But Tory group leader Geoff Driver – who repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to move amendments to reinstate or reduce five of the service cuts, including those to buses, libraries and museums, if only to allow time for more consultations – told Labour that saying “all the fault of the government is simply not true.”
He argued his costed proposals would even give Labour an extra £1m in its budget.
‘The consultation is flawed, the whole process is flawed’
As Lancashire County Council met to vote on cuts to public services, the mood among protesters outside Coumty Hall was one of upset, but also determination.
Two different groups, campaigning on very different issues, met to try to achieve the same thing: stopping the proposed cuts.
Save the Buses Ribchester held placards imploring the council to ‘Save Our Buses’, as the village aimed to avoid being cut off from all public transport links from February 21.
At the same time, a housing group, spearheaded by a representative from Adactus Housing, were protesting about cuts to a 23-bed homeless project in Lancaster.
They voiced, primarily, two strands of dismay: firstly, that people on the margins of society have been forgotten; and secondly, that the communication from the council has been either limited or nonexistent.
David Hudson, chairman of Stop the Buses Ribchester, said: “There are lots of levels on which people are affected, young people can’t get to school, the elderly can’t get to hospital appointments.
“The issues we have is that the consultation is flawed – the whole process is flawed.”
He was joined by Richard Turner, who uses the bus service from Ribchester six days a week to get to his job at Sainsbury’s in Clitheroe.
Mr Turner said: “The cuts will affect me going out to work, and going out round town. I don’t drive at all, so I’d have to rely on my parents, and also taxis.”
Serena Hudson, whose daughter attends Clitheroe Grammar School, said that the cuts would make the journey impossible: “If the number five bus is cut, we don’t know how we’re going to get her to and from college Monday to Friday.
“My husband and I both work, and we’re not really sure what we’re going to do.”
The timing – and the decision-making process – is a serious bone of contention amongst the people of Ribchester.
Councillors met yesterday to debate the budget, despite the fact that the consultation does not close until the end of March, something that Mrs Hudson labelled as ‘a farce’.
She said: “I also think that the council haven’t properly considered groups such as the young and the disabled – they said they would consult fully with all groups, but they obviously haven’t done that.
“There’s a lady near us who has worked for Debenhams for about 17 years – she loves her job, she’s never driven and she thinks that she’ll have to give her work up.”
Also protesting was Liz Hunter, from Adactus Housing, which provide a supported housing project for homeless people over 25.
There is now the real possibility that it could close, after £750,000 of council money was put into opening the project in April 2015.
Ms Hunter said: “We’ve got residents here that have been previously rough sleeping.
“Their homes will be lost, they’ll have nowhere to go, they’ve just made a change in their lives, and to lose their homes will just have a devastating effect.”
David Sharpe, 28, has seen the positive effect that the project can have first hand, having been taken in after falling ill with anxiety and depression.
He said: “I love it there, it’s brilliant. The cuts are really disappointing – it feels like the big guy’s not looking after the little guy.”