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Austerity to deepen in County Durham

203An update on budget planning for the North East’s largest council – including the impact of the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) – will reveal a total savings target of close to £290m by 2020. Members will also hear that whilst austerity will continue, much remains uncertain at this stage as Durham County Council will not receive its financial settlement from Whitehall until mid-December.

However, an action plan, the potential use of an additional £25m from reserves and a continuation of the sound financial management approach adopted by the council means that despite the toughest of times, every effort will be made to minimise the impact of the cuts on the county’s residents.

The budget planning paper before the authority’s Cabinet next week (December 16) sets out a four year plan which will see continued consultation with the public on spending priorities, and also on the impact of proposed changes. Final decisions will be made on 74 proposals for savings outlined in the report by Cabinet and Full Council in February.

Alongside these measures continuing efforts will be made to highlight and support the ‘Durham Ask’, a programme which sees the council support communities and the voluntary sector to take over some council buildings and services.

The council Leader is Cllr Simon Henig: “We have done our best to protect frontline services and to respond to the priorities set by the public and we are committed to maintaining this approach.

“Continuing spending cuts on this scale inevitably mean making tremendously difficult decisions including changes to services, altering how we deliver those services and reducing our own costs at the same time.

“As we manage this we will use a potential further £25m in reserves to mitigate the impact on frontline services as best we can.

“We are also committed to ongoing consultation with residents so that we understand how proposed changes may affect people and we will pay special attention to those who are most vulnerable as well as people living in rural more remote areas.”

The continuing austerity also means there will be a further impact on jobs at the council.  In 2010, then facing budget reductions of £123m, Durham announced workforce reductions, of 1,950 posts. That figure remained, despite austerity continuing and a revised savings target of £260m earlier this year. However, facing additional savings the council may have to reduce the number of posts by a further 400. The freezing of vacant posts and redeployment – as well as skills training and the introduction of more efficient ways of working will be used to reduce the impact.

Cllr Henig again: “We recognise our staff are our biggest asset, which is why we have strived so hard to protect as many jobs as possible, while making greater cuts to management and support costs. Sadly, like many public sector organisations, we may have to reduce our workforce further to prioritise spending on services wherever we can. Again, we will delete vacant posts and use redeployment to minimise the impact.”

The council’s financial planning is based on a 2 per cent increase in council tax over the next four years. However the CSR offered local authorities the chance to help replace lost central Government funds by adding a further 2 per cent social care precept to council tax bills – with income from this ring-fenced for spending on adult social care. This option will be part of the upcoming budget consultation exercise.

Earlier in the autumn of 2015 the council’s 14 Area Action Partnerships took part in the latest round of consultation on how the council should manage its reducing budget. Feedback from this, and an online consultation option, revealed the public’s spending priorities had not changed. However, residents will continue to have their say via a second phase of consultation, starting December 16 and running until January 12, 2016. As well as an online option at www.durham.gov.uk/haveyoursay there will be three special events:

December 16, 2015 – St Johns RC, Bishop Auckland      6pm – 7.30pm

December 17, 2015 – Shotton Hall, Peterlee                    1pm – 2.30pm

December 17, 2015 – County Hall, Durham                      6pm – 7.30pm

The full Cabinet report can be viewed here http://democracy.durham.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=154&MId=7926&Ver=4

Members will note the report’s recommendations it when they meet at Durham Town Hall on December 16.

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