At its meeting on Thursday 28th February Southend-on-Sea Borough Council set its budget for 2013/14.
In the current age of austerity, the Council has had to make incredibly tough decisions to balance its books and meet a largely Government inflicted shortfall of £10.5 million.
The Council continues to try to maintain the full range of services it currently provides, by making efficiency savings, renegotiating existing contracts, rationalising systems and sharing delivery. But as the level of savings demanded by Government keeps increasing, it has become impossible for the Council to deliver a balanced budget without affecting or altering some provision. Everything possible has been done to minimise the impact of these essential efficiencies on front line services.
Significantly, the Council has chosen not to agree to the Government’s call to freeze its Council Tax for the third year in succession. This is because the Chancellor’s ‘freeze grant’ – equivalent to a 2.5 per cent Council Tax increase in the previous two years – has been pegged back to 1 per cent for next year and would have the real effect of simply deferring greater cuts and restricting the ability to deliver services. Accepting the grant for 2013/14 would have resulted in the authority having to make greater budget cuts for both the forthcoming financial year and 2014/15.
Following a lengthy debate, Councillors agreed to increase Council Tax by 1.75 per cent - an increase of just 38p-a-week for residents in Band D properties. To balance its books for the forthcoming financial year the Council has identified £6.587m in efficiencies across its five spending areas including:
A further £3.838m in efficiencies have been achieved through a range of cross-cutting spending themes including transport, highways, IT systems and social care.
In Adult & Community Services the Council’s investment in re-ablement services has enabled it to cease its £500,000 joint funding of the Cumberlege Intermediate Care Centre.
In Children and Learning £120,000 savings will be realised with the ending of the Council’s contribution to the Government-funded Parenting Early Intervention Project (PEIP).
In Enterprise, Tourism & the Environment savings of £130,000 will be made by ceasing to hold the Air Festival. There will be a further £50,000 savings by closing Southend Pier on Mondays and Tuesdays from 1st November to the 1st April (or Easter, whichever is the earlier).
In Support Services a reduction in Customer Services staff made possible by the increased use of online self-service has enabled savings of £167,000 to be made. Corporately, the closure of Queensway House will realise savings of £300,000 and a review of the Council’s senior management structure a further £250,000.
But the need to make such significant savings in order to be able to present a balanced budget will inevitably lead to further job losses at the authority. A total of 80 Full-Time Equivalent posts have been identified as being at risk, of which 41 are currently vacant. Employees in the affected areas and the trade unions have been fully briefed.
The Council’s policy of continuing to keep vacant posts open and the Talent Pool system will help to keep the number of compulsory redundancies to an absolute minimum.
Despite the increasingly difficult economic conditions the Council has held car parking charges at the same level as last year and kept the increases in other annual fees and charges to a minimum. This will be the third year in the last four where car parking charges have been fixed in a bid to assist town centre and seafront businesses.
The Council is also pushing forward with a capital programme which will deliver improved facilities and boost growth locally. These include:
Council Leader Nigel Holdcroft said: “We are now into the third year of the austerity measures and these financial decisions are becoming harder and harder to make. “Over the past two years we have delivered a raft of economies and made targeted efficiency savings to ensure we can balance our books. “We have also done a lot of work in re-negotiating terms with our contractors and suppliers which have enabled us to avoid having to physically cut services. “But the economic situation has worsened across Europe and Government is telling us that it is going to take the country longer than had previously been thought to put things back on an even keel. “We no longer have any leeway and we will have to make real cuts to services in order to balance our books - and that involves making some very hard choices. “We are also facing increasing challenges, such as the fact that the number of residents over 65 will increase by 11 per cent over the next three years, while at the same time there is an increase in the number of pre-school age children in the borough. “We recognise that we have had to make some unpopular decisions in this budget but I would residents to remember that this crisis was not of our making. “This year we will not be taking the Government’s freeze grant because it has reduced the level of support it is offering, and poses restrictions for future budgets “We have decided instead to increase Council Tax by 1.75 per cent which we believe is reasonable and will enable us to protect at least some services and jobs from cuts. “On a more positive note the Government’s allocation to Southend for Public Health, which comes under local authority control in April, was higher than had previously been indicated. “But these difficult financial conditions are not going to improve any time soon and we will have further difficult decisions to make in years to come, with the prospect of having to meet a £29.6 million shortfall over the next three years. “We are determined not to make decisions on a short-term year-by-year basis and have already begun looking at how we can make major savings in service delivery going forward. “We have to take a new approach to how we provide libraries, museums, leisure facilities, old people’s homes, children’s centres and waste services. “But I genuinely believe that the continuing hard work and co-operation of our staff and partners will enable the Council to meet the ever increasing challenges we are facing head-on. “Southend continues to be a fantastic place to live, work, study and relax and we will continue to strive as hard as we can to improve the lives of all our residents come what may.”
Member since: 10th July 2012
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