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Suffolk County Council faces challenge on need to cut front line services

In rejecting budget amendments to be put to Suffolk County Council by the Lib Dems on Thursday, the Conservative deputy leader, Jane Storey, is effectively putting the big society experiment before libraries, rural bus services, youth clubs and more.

Mrs Storey told the East Anglian Daily Times that the the management of change budget (the largest element in the Lib Dem counter proposals) was very important because it was preparing staff to work under the councils’s new strategic direction.  She told the paper: “It is one thing to look at savings in isolation for one year, but this is the first of a series of what will be tough settlements.”

The Lib Dems propose cutting the management of change budget by £1.7 million. Their alternative cuts also include others which would clearly be painful including £800,000 off roads maintenance. They suggest reducing a contingency fund by £1 million, using £700,000 of reserves and cutting business mileage by 10% saving £936,000. In total their cuts add up to £6.23 million which balances with the cost of the services they want to protect.

This money would instead be used for libraries, youth clubs, public transport, school crossing patrols, recycling centres and the fire service.  Here is the Lib Dem press release (personal phone numbers removed).

The New Strategic Direction is is effectively the Big Society writ large, ending with the council becoming an “enabling body” by divesting the running of services to charities, social enterprises, other councils, volunteer groups and the private sector.

Nationally, David Cameron has recognised that it will cost money to get the big society up an running. In an article in the Observer yesterday he said:

But we understand that while the opportunity lies in the future the local authority cuts are happening now. So this week we are launching a transition fund to help charities prepare to bid for these contracts and a big society bank to provide some working capital when they’re awarded them.

Cameron’s local government secretary, Eric Pickles, has said that the cuts in government finance do not mean councils need to cut front line service. And Central Suffolk Conservative MP, Dan Poulter has supported firemen saying that the county council is being asked to go back to the spending levels of three years ago.

Lib Dem group leader Kathy Pollard said:

Unlike the Conservatives, we have been listening to Suffolk people. It has not been difficult to identify the savings we needed to retain these services. It is a question of priorities.  Clearly the Conservatives at Suffolk County Council are determined to close and privatise as many services as possible. This is ideologically driven and is not being imposed on them by central Government.

Suffolk county council Tories who grabbed the big society idea and ran with it as something that could be quickly implemented on a huge scale, are looking increasingly isolated. The Prime Minister is saying it will take time and money, the Local Government Secretary disputes their need to cut front line services and has now been joined by one of the county’s conservative MPs.

But the Conservative majority on the County Council is huge and they do not appear ready to compromise. But at least the Lib Dem amendment shines a light on some of the costs of the New Strategic Direction and priority they are being given by the Conservatives.

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