Stoke-on-Trent City Council cuts: Threat to frontline as cuts spark fear for jobs
AUSTERITY cuts from central Government have become so severe that frontline services can no longer be protected, according to the city council's leadership.
Nursery education and adult social care are among the biggest losers in citywide savings of £21.1 million.
The authority is to look increasingly to private and independent organisations to provide care it can no longer afford in-house.
Staff will also bear the brunt as up to 250 more jobs and some senior posts are cut, contractual perks targeted for savings and a series of departments subjected to cost-cutting reviews to squeeze savings of £7.6 million.
But leaders say Government funding reductions are now unmanageable without targeting even the services it is legally required to provide.
And they believe the council must become 'independent of the Government' – finding ways to attract new businesses and create jobs without central funding support.
Labour and council leader Mohammed Pervez said: "These cuts are having a huge impact on the quality of life of our residents.
"We have been very vocal in our rebuttal to the Government's cuts. They say we're all in it together but they have imposed bigger cuts on deprived cities like Stoke-on-Trent – which have depended on their grants – than they have on affluent areas. It is totally unfair.
"We have to become independent of the Government. It's crucial we generate income within the city and we can only do this if we attract businesses and raise money from the business rates they pay.
"The Government is simply not helping us and we have to do more to find ways to pay for our services."
Among the most controversial cuts is £1.7 million savings in nursery education, which could slash free weekly provision by half to the legal minimum of 15 hours.
The authority will task an independent panel, including national specialist Eleni Ioannides and children's centre cuts campaigner Milissa Beydilli, to explore ways it can improve attainment in Key Stage One despite the cuts.
Mr Pervez said: "We've been providing 30 hours of nursery care for three and four-year-olds and children's centre support on top.
"However, despite all the spending, the net result has been that we're at the bottom of the list for Key Stage One results. That simply is not good enough and something drastically needs to change.
"What I want is for us to focus on outcomes, not the amount of money we spend. We have to improve results and the panel will support our review with their own expertise."
Budget proposals for 2013/14 do not include any additional investment proposals to support the authority's Mandate for Change vision to create jobs. More than £4 million was added to the 2012/13 savings bill for projects to kick-start economic growth.
But Mr Pervez said attracting new businesses to the city in the face of continued spending cuts remains the authority's top priority.
And loaning £40 million to build a new Civic Centre in Hanley's emerging Central Business District (CBD) remains fundamental to the strategy.
Mr Pervez added: "We cannot borrow £40 million to pay for services, it's a different budget.
"I know there's a lot of misunderstanding around why we want to go ahead with the CBD, but without it we will not be able to secure further investment in our city centre.
"Jobs will be created both during the construction phase and beyond.
"Selling the Spode and Civic Centre sites in Stoke will raise millions to allow the council to pay back loans."
Chief executive John van de Laarschot, right, believes cuts are now exceeding a level the authority can sustain.
He said: "It's not easy. We originally estimated saving £100 million over four years and to date those predictions have been scarily accurate.
"In the earlier years it is easier, although the first year's savings came as a huge shock to the city. The settlement was late and we had to make savings quickly.
"The organisation understands there's going to be continual change and continual belt-tightening. But it is very difficult. "There are still some efficiency savings to be made by being more effective and delivering more for less but it's starting to get tight.
"There's always criticism about management posts, but in two years we've seen a reduction of 50 per cent which has saved £2 million. In fact from a strategic capacity perspective, things are starting to get rather tight."
Mr van de Laarschot said major outsourcing cannot be ruled out, adding; "We are looking at it, across a broad range of services, but with a degree of caution and not jumping in foolhardily."
Councillor Dave Conway, leader of the opposition City Independents, raised concerns about cuts to programmes supporting the long-term unemployed and business start-ups – both of which relate to national and European schemes which have now ended.
He said: "Everything they say is about wanting to support jobs, but this is not going to help.
"We warned that parking charges at Dimensions was pennywise and pound foolish. "Now they are cutting back on the pool and cafe times, driving more people to WaterWorld, because of reduced demand. That is not going to help raise income."
"There is not enough meat on the bones. A lot of the proposals are ambiguous to say the least and they will have to provide more information if this is going to be a proper consultation."
The city council has already announced it will freeze council tax from April, despite needing to make the savings.
Councillor Abi Brown, Conservative leader, said: "We cautiously welcome the decision to freeze tax but we will be looking very carefully at the budget proposals to see if there are other ways we can make savings."
Yesterday, The Sentinel revealed leaders at Newcastle Borough Council are planning a third successive council tax freeze from April.
And Staffordshire County Council also wants to freeze the bill in the next financial year.