£21m Walsall Council cuts laid bare
'We have listened to what our residents wanted' – those were the words of council bosses today as the full scale of £21 million budget cuts were laid bare.
Chiefs in Walsall today insisted their final proposals, which have seen a number of controversial cost-cutting plans scrapped, were good news for the borough, with council tax frozen and libraries, leisure centres and day care centres staying open.
But concerns have been raised that beneath the surface some services still face devastating cuts with £104m of savings needed in the next five years.
Some £6.82m will go from social care and health, £5.1m from children's services, £1.5m from leisure and culture, £1.69m from regeneration and transport, and £2.3m from resources.
More than 1,300 people had a say on the budget plans in one of the biggest consultations ever held in the borough. And now chiefs say they have listened to the public's fears and taken action.
Although some services have been saved from the axe the amount of money that needs to be saved has not changed, and critics say deep cuts will still have to be made.
As part of the moves to slash council budgets, domiciliary care in people's homes, including visits from carers, is set to be cut to save £1m.
But bosses insist a 're-ablement' service which encourages them to be more independent will reduce demand.
And a subsidy to schools for school dinners would also be axed and schools could also be asked to pick up the tab for lollipop men and women at less riskier sites or risk the service being withdrawn, saving £85,000. The cost of a blue disabled parking badge would increase from £2 to £10, while short-term placements for residential care will be reduced to save £500,000.
The council will also introduce 'personal budgets' into extra-care housing for older people to decide what services people need and how much they should be charged.
Chiefs say under the current system some are not being charged enough and others are getting care they do not require.
The closure of the residential unit at specialist mental health care home the Broadway North Resource Centre to save £100,000 is also going ahead despite opposition from service users.
Libraries, including the borough's main facility in the town centre in Lichfield Street, will stay open but self-service facilities are expected to save £2,000 a year.
Maintenance at cemeteries and playgrounds will be cut to save £50,000 and £49,000 respectively. Planned roadworks classed as 'low priority' will also be cancelled to boost coffers by £250,000 while the security provided at car parks will even be reviewed to save £52,000.
Among the services spared the axe is Walsall Museum which had been earmarked for closure to save £70,000. The move was scrapped after a consultation revealed the public did not support the plans.
Councillors have said that the long term plan is to open a new heritage centre on one site which would bring together Walsall Museum, Leather Museum and Walsall Local History Centre.
They will now be looking to retain the museum until the new centre is opened.
Councillor Ian Shires, portfolio holder for community engagement and voluntary sector, said he was pleased that the council heeded a call for a major campaign to encourage people to have their say. He said: " Overall, we made changes to the budget proposals worth around £700,000 after listening to the views of our residents. At one stage we had looked at closing Walsall Museum but in our own detailed survey more than 90 per cent of people were in favour of keeping it open. I'm delighted that we have listened to people.
"Overall, we spend £5,773 per household a year in Walsall and council tax nowhere near covers that, which is an important point to make."
Democratic Labour councillor for Blakenall Pete Smith said he would vote against the budget at Thursday's crunch full council meeting. He said he was worried the council was 'putting off the inevitable' with potential savings of up to £30m to be made the following financial year. He said: "These cuts will disproportionately hit those people towards the bottom of the ladder.
"The cuts are relentless and have been going on year after year. This time next year the council we could be talking about £25m to £30m of further cuts and unless councillors take a stand against this there will be no local government left."
But council leader Mike Bird argued: "This has not been easy and some tough decisions have been made. There's no escaping that. But we've worked to ringfence as much as we can the things that people tell us that they most want us to keep."
The authority, which currently has more than 6,300 workers on the payroll including school staff, will have to save £104m over the next five years to cope with cuts in Government funding. Among the hundreds of other savings being planned across the authority, £127,000 will come from jobs being cut in waste services – though the number has not been revealed.
A social care apprenticeship scheme will be phased out to the tune of £250,000, job losses in social care will bring in £800,000 but it is feared dozens could go. Some £250,000 will come from cutting staff in mental health. Huge hikes in fees for sports clubs to use pitches have been thrown out for the time being but council documents warn that savings will need to be made in 2015/16. Bowls clubs that currently pay £810 a year faced shelling out up to £6,605, with costs for junior football teams planned to rise from £382 to £1,618.
Bosses blamed the removal of a subsidy but they have now scrapped the plans after clubs said they would struggle to survive. However the budget report says a review will be carried out this year before a decision is made for 2015/16.
Cynthia Bratt, of Pleck Sons of Rest bowls club, welcomed the decision and said the club would be able to continue for the coming year. She said: "It was going to be that we wouldn't be able to play and then the gardens where we play would have gone to waste."
But Barhale Bowling Club, which has been running for more than 70 years, will move from the council-run Bentley Pavilion to a private bowling green in Willenhall after claiming that their requests to find out about potential fee hikes by the council this year had been ignored.
Mr Gorman said: "I think not knowing about the charges will encourage other clubs to do the same. It depends what kind of situation they are in financially. We feel like we were pushed into a corner.
"I think the prices for the greens will go up substantially over the next four years. The council has a lot of money to find."
Proposals were put forward in October to reduce the number of day care centres but during the consultation service users said this would hit vulnerable people hard – so the plans were scrapped.
A report on the survey says: "Those not supporting the proposal express the value they get from these services, especially for the respite this provides carers and the support it provides elderly and disabled people.
"Similarly those showing support for this proposal also expressed concern about the impact on vulnerable people and hence the need to make the reduction in the right place and to be sensitive and responsive to the potential impact on individuals."
Burial charges will be increased by up to 5.5 per cent to bring in £165,000, which chiefs argue reflects recent investment in the service, which includes eight cemeteries, Streetly Crematorium and the register office in the Civic Centre.
A report due to go before councillors this week says: "The council has made a major capital commitment of £1.8m in new mercury abatement equipment and new cremators at the crematorium. It is also looking at further significant investment in burial provision to the west of the borough in extending Willenhall Lawn cemetery.
"This is in addition to capital funding of £0.5m being made available over the last few years to extend Streetly cemetery to provide for new burial areas."
News that there will be a freeze in council tax comes after the authority warned a two to four per cent rise may be necessary to help retain services – though that level of increase would have required support from a referendum.
By rejecting an increase the authority will get a £2.7m Government grant to compensate for loss of income.
Walsall Council's finance chief today blamed Government funding cuts for the authority's money woes – and insisted that the public still gets value for money.
Councillor Chris Towe, cabinet member for resources, said the authority was bound by the money it received from the Government. Total government grants for the council have fallen from £169.1m in 2012-13 to £146.9m for 2014-15 and a predicted £125.35m the year after. And he pledged to make sure the cuts have the least possible effect on residents. He said: "We're working hard to make Walsall a better place for people to live and work.
"As our funding from Government continues to decrease we will have fewer staff – therefore we will be able to do less – but we will make sure that we do the best with what we have got.
Overall, over the last four years, we've lost £57.9m of funding but council tax on average has risen for a Walsall household by only £20.71 over that entire period. That's an increase of around a penny a day and yet we are still delivering more than 700 services for people, which is incredible value for money."
With further details of the cuts facing the borough set to emerge in weeks to come, opposition Labour councillor Doug James said he believed the public would be shocked at the scale of savings to be made in future.
He predicted there would be a 'heated debate' on Thursday where the administration's action plan would be called into question when the budget is discussed at a council meeting. He said: "I'm concerned about front line services, in particular in adult social care.
"We stand for making sure services are maintained for people in the greatest need. There has been some form of consultation and one or two decisions have gone in local people's favour - but for how long?"
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