Somerset Cuts to the Bare Bone - £66m Over Three Years!

UNISON is set to protest against what it claims are unprecedented cuts in Somerset County Council.  The cuts, which total £66m over the next three years, will mean the loss of up to 270 posts* in this year alone, with many being compulsory redundancies.

The cuts come on top of the hundreds of job losses over the last few years, and follows a four year freeze on staff pay.  These cuts are set against a backdrop of severe austerity measures by the Council and reduced central government funding.  The £66m’s worth of cuts are being spread over three years.  Cuts for 2014/2015 are projected to be £26m, £24m in 2015/2016 and £16m in 2013/2014.

Somerset County UNISON Branch has organised a protest of the Full Council meeting, which is attended by all Councillors in the County and where all the decisions about cuts are approved.  The protest is due to commence at 9am on Wednesday 20 February.

Oliver Foster-Burnell, Somerset County UNISON Branch Area Organiser, said:

“With this latest round of cuts, which comes on top of tens of millions of pounds worth of cuts over the last few years, we are seriously concerned about the impact they will have on the most vulnerable residents of Somerset.  We have genuine concerns that the cuts to staffing levels and services will put the general public and specifically the poorest and most vulnerable at risk at a time when we should be looking at protecting them.  This is even backed up by the Council’s own equality impact assessment which identifies that these cuts will have a disproportionate impact on age (the elderly and the young), disability and low income.**

Arminel Goodall, Somerset County UNISON Assistant Branch Secretary, said:

“We are long past the point where any staff might conceivably be engaged in unessential work - any cuts to staff will have a direct effect on the provision of services to the public.  Staff and services are have been cut to the bare bone and are under immense pressure.  Some are at breaking point.  I lack the words to encompass just how grim things are likely to be.”

Oliver Foster-Burnell, added:

“Cuts are being imposed on Early Years children’s education, children’s centres, transport for secondary schools and for Special Educational Needs pupils, social care, Learning Disability support, Taunton Library Enquiry Centre and business assistance, not to mention highways maintenance and potholes!  The Chief Executive, Sheila Wheeler, has in the past talked about how vulnerable people are her priority.  If that’s the case, it’s not readily apparent from the service areas where the greatest cuts fall.  For example, the Children’s Services budget is being cut by £1.4m in the 2013/2014 period.  Over the next three years this actually equates to £4.2m spending power being removed from the budget.  It’s funding and services that will never be replaced.  It’s important to remember that these services are preventative services.  In other words, if they aren’t funded now, it will cost more, in more ways than one, in the long term.”

Over the last four years there has been a continued freeze on staff pay as well as a Council Tax freeze.  During this time, the Council have shed hundreds of jobs and cut services.  All the while the Council continues to spend money on senior interim staff and consultants.  Within the last few weeks it was announced that Peter Lewis was being employed as Interim Director of Children's Services.  Other senior roles continue to lack permanent post holders.  Up to £3 million is being spent on consultancy services from PricewaterhouseCoopers over an 18 month period, this on top of work from previous consultants.  In addition, to the millions already spent on restructuring, reorganising and looking at new ways of working up to £4 million will be spent on yet another new working initiative, Smart Office.***

Oliver Foster-Burnell continued:

“A Council Tax increase of just 2.5%, would dampen these damaging cuts would be worth £5m a year****.  Freezing Council Tax for another year just does not make sense.”

“This Conservative administration is not reflecting the needs of the community, nor are they doing anything to challenge the diminishing grants given to them by the Government.  They are not making decisions that represent what their constituents want or need.  Instead of towing the party line, they could take a stance and stand up for their community, their constituents, their services and their local economy.

“The cuts, totalling £66m over the next three years start with £16m coming off of this year’s budget.  It appears to us that this is purely a political decision ahead of the elections.  The Council has dived into the reserves this year in an obvious pre‑election attempt to delay the true scale of the coming cuts until after the election, when the cuts increase by another £8m to £10m year on year.”

“We also have to ask how every single Councillor is supposed to read and make a truly informed decision and vote on such important and complex issues, when inundated with 200 plus pages of council papers to consider.  That doesn’t even include the financial risk assessments documentation nor the hundreds of pages from the equality impact assessments documentation.  Even worse, we understand that some of decisions to make cuts are being given solely to individuals to make.

“In January Council Leader John Osman claimed that “there were efficiencies to be made” and that various services had “been protected”.  If these planned cuts are voted through, we believe there will be little protection for anyone who needs the support of Council services and indeed we would seriously question if the Council can meet its legal or moral obligations.  We believe that a lot of the changes that the council are pushing through could be open to legal challenges, which could cost the Council and Council Tax payers much more in the long run in more ways that one.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors/ picture editor

*270 posts are going in total, including the loss of 180 jobs, many of which will be compulsorily redundancies.

** Source: Full Council papers for Wednesday 20 October, Appendix M Cumulative Impacts & Risks Assessment, section 2.5 Community Safety, section 2.6 Equality and Diversity (specifically point (a)) and section 2.6 Health and Safety. Many of the reports and papers being tabled can be found online on the Council’s website at http://www1.somerset.gov.uk/council/boards.asp?boardnum=1

*** Smart Office – is the project about ‘smart working’, hot desking and the amalgamation of offices, where the Council are reducing the number of offices and desks available to work at.

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