What’s for the chop when the cuts bite?
Public services across Britain are facing a massive spending squeeze later this year. Today local government correspondent PAUL GEATER looks at what the cuts could mean for county council services and the police here in Suffolk.
IPSWICH: We are currently living through the calm before the storm so far as government expenditure is concerned.
Everyone knows massive cuts are on the way – cuts of up to 30 per cent across the board and up to 40pc in individual departments – but no one yet knows exactly how they will manifest themselves.
Departments at the county council are taking a new look at how they will operate in the future, what services they will be providing – and what can be taken over by the voluntary or private sectors.
The importance of the county council as an employer cannot be overestimated. It has about 27,000 employees and is by far the largest employer in the county.
About 15,000 of these employees are staff in schools. They are not immune from the proposed cuts – but their future will be determined by national policy and schools are facing smaller budget cuts than some other sectors (although the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme has shown how vulnerable they are).
The remaining 12,000 county council staff are facing a very uncertain period over the next few months – and while few details of spending cuts have leaked out, some sectors are known to be facing tough times.
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Meanwhile, the police are having to reassess their work with cuts of between 20 and 25pc expected over the next two years.
Today we assess what all this might mean in the frontline of the battle to provide services in the county.
WITH the schools sector taken out of the equation, this is the largest department at the county council and the one where cuts will need to be largest in absolute terms and potentially most painful.
The department is responsible for the care of vulnerable adults and is facing a potentially huge increase in the demand for its services as the elderly population of Suffolk increases over the next few decades.
The county is aiming to change the emphasis of its work – from providing services directly to helping people or their families to organise their own care.
Colin Noble is the councillor currently responsible for adult care. He said staff had been preparing for the “brave new world” for months already and would be looking to change the way it operates once more details about future funding became clear.
The changes could lead to the county selling off the care homes it currently owns and operates – although it seems likely to retain a responsibility to pay for some of those needing care in private accommodation.
Already there are fewer home helps employed directly by the county council – more are employed by outside contractors – and this selling-off of services seems likely to continue.
The council is hoping to encourage people to live a healthier lifestyle and get more support from their local community in the hope that they won’t need direct local authority support in future – but that is a very long-term aspiration.
In the short term the county is likely to pay for fewer sessions at daycare centres and put up the cost for those that can afford these sessions.
Every service provided by adult services will be scrutinised to ensure it provides value for money over the next few months.
HIGHWAYS AND TRANSPORT
THIS is a service we all use to some extent – whether it is driving along the road, catching a bus that is subsidised by the county, or just walking along a pavement.
Guy McGregor is councillor with responsibility for transport and highways and is in no doubt what his priority is.
He told me: “The county council is the highway authority. It is our responsibility to ensure that the county’s highways are well-maintained.”
With his department facing a squeeze that is likely to mean much less money spent on supporting public transport – and there could be a huge question mark over the future of Ipswich’s Park and Ride Network.
There is a contract with First Group to run Park and Ride until 2013, but whether the network survives after then is an open question.
All the car parks are beside existing Ipswich Buses or First Eastern Counties routes and could be absorbed into the normal service without the need for major subsidies.
The county sees it as important to subsidise bus routes in rural areas – but these subsidies could come under pressure.
And it is unlikely to go ahead with any investments in new road schemes or junctions unless they are absolutely necessary – its reduced money will be spent on maintaining the existing network.
The department spends a considerable amount of money on promoting public transport in the county – that is likely to be slashed.
And the Suffolk Explore card – which offers discounted fares to teenagers on buses and trains – is likely to come under review.
Sources at the council say this is unlikely to be scrapped, but could be converted into a card that has to be paid for like a Young Person’s Railcard on the rail network.
LIBRARIES AND CULTURE
A COMPARATIVELY small element of Suffolk’s budget, this is nevertheless an area that almost everyone in the county uses and has a strong opinion on.
The county is looking at encouraging local communities to take on running libraries in a similar way to school governors.
It would also like to see volunteers running the desks at libraries – although there has not yet been a “use it or lose it threat”.
Many within the library service fear this could come in the future.
The county is also likely to be forced to cut back on its support for cultural organisations, from the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich through to the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket.
It could also cut back on its funding of economic development and tourist organisations.
Some of the more peripheral services provided by the council, like the county archaeology service, could find themselves looking very vulnerable in the new order.
FIRE SERVICE AND PUBLIC PROTECTION
THE fire and rescue service is a statutory duty of the county council – it has to provide a level of protection laid down by the central government.
The service has had investment – a new fire station is due to open in east Ipswich later this year.
There will be savings here, for instance fire appliances may be kept on the road longer than they have been in the past and there could be more of an emphasis placed on fire prevention.
But there are unlikely to be cuts as deep as in some other parts of the authority.
The public protection department also includes Trading Standards – and while this is a very small element of the council’s total budget it cannot completely avoid efficiency savings.
THE schools side of the council work is largely controlled by the Department of Education in London – but children’s services also includes the county’s social services for young people.
Providing social workers for vulnerable children, foster families, and in some cases children’s homes is a vital role undertaken by the county.
There will be attempts to reduce the amount spent on administration here but the council will be reluctant to make any cuts which put vulnerable children at risk.
SUFFOLK Police Authority knows that it could be forced to make significant cuts to its staffing and services as it could face a reduction in its budget of up to 25pc.
Authority chairman Colin Spence said the exact depths of the reductions were not yet known and while some efficiencies had been agreed at its meetings earlier this year, the exact future would not be known until the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review is published in October.
“Until then no decisions will be made and anything else is just speculation,” he insisted.
But this speculation has persisted.
There are fears that the county’s entire force of Community Police Support Officers (CPSOs) could be disbanded as Home Office funding is due to be withdrawn over the next two years.
And there have also been further question marks raised about the future of the police helicopter – officers say it is invaluable in catching criminals but the high running costs are bound to remain an important factor in its operation.
Chief constable Simon Ash has warned that a 25pc cut in funding would reduce the total number of constabulary employees by 500-600, but that would still leave it a larger organisation than it was in 2001.
In that year there were 1,786 employees – including 1,136 officers – now there are 2,563 staff – including 1,246 officers.
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