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Swale council's tough budget decisions as it tries to save £1.6million this year

Swale Council leader Andrew Bowles
Swale Council leader Andrew Bowles

Swale council leader Andrew Bowles has announced full details of proposed cuts to services in what has been described as the most difficult budget for two decades.

The council is facing tough decisions and councillors and finance officers have been toiling behind the scenes to find ways to trim £5million from the council’s budget in the next three years.

Budget plans revealed this week show proposed cuts of £1.6million.

They include several redundancies, although the exact number is not known.

Cuts in funding to festivals, the arts and parades, learning and skills, museums, sports development including the summer scheme, and to the car park maintenance budget are also planned.

Both the Mayor’s office and chief executive’s office will be restructured, making staffing savings of £17,900 and £18,400 respectively. There will also be a reduction in Mayoral duties.

A further £93,400 will be saved by not replacing the vacant post of corporate director, which was held by Ian Russell.

Cllr Bowles said: “In an ideal world we would like to fill this post, but this is not an ideal world.

“It is certainly the most difficult budget I have been involved in and I have been involved in the last 18 to 20 or so.”

The council is also hoping to make savings of more than £130,000 from its homelessness and housing budgets through reducing services and becoming more efficient and £200,000 by changing its housing benefit and council tax benefits service.

Using high efficiency driers rather than hand towels will save £1,000.

Further savings will be made through the Mid Kent Improvement Partnership and through relocating the CCTV operation to Medway.

The council is also hoping to make savings of £44,500 on its waste contract and generate income from increased take up of the brown bin scheme.

Cllr Bowles said the council is hoping to increase its portion of council tax by 2.5 per cent. If there was no increase, a further £175,000 of cuts would have to be made.

He stressed again the importance of residents and the council’s scrutiny committee making their views known, but added: “If people want to reinstate a service that we are having to remove or one that is facing cuts, then someone will have to suggest how to make these savings.

“I believe the man on the street appreciates how difficult this process is. It is really important that everyone engages in this process.”

Cllr Bowles also said that if the majority of feedback from consultation leaned towards a higher hike in Council Tax in favour of not cutting services, then the council would be guided by that.

“We are running out of fat to cut and are now getting down to the meat and bones as such,” he added.

The council’s ruling executive will consider the budget cuts on Wednesday.

Further public consultation will be carried out in January next year and a final decision will be made by full council in February.

Opposition responses:

Angela Harrison with Roger Truelove
Angela Harrison with Roger Truelove

Roger Truelove, on behalf of Swale's Labour Party group, said: "Labour does not dispute the need to plan carefully for the next few years.

"It is right to look at the medium term implications for the budget and to build in sufficient flexibility to deal with uncertainties around the appropriate level of Council tax and the levels of Government support, whichever party is in power at Westminster.

"We do dispute the idea that the challenges facing the Council are purely a result of the current economic climate.

"The fact is that for the past 10 years the Swale budget has been badly managed, with an annual imbalance between income and spending and too much dependence on short term funding from balances.

"The sort of planning that is now being done should have happened several years ago, when foolish decisions were made for short-term political gain.

"It is right that Swale now maintains a sustainable General fund balance to meet any uncertainties in future.

"Even at this stage the Council is still building in a deficit for the years from 2011 onwards, and whilst we agree with the assumed reduction in the annual rate in growth of Council tax, annual increases of 2.5 per cent may not be sustainable.

"There is no capital programme for a Council that is leading on regeneration, though Labour would say that we would like to see much better community contributions from developers, through 106 agreements.

"Of course, cuts of £1.6 million in one year and £5 million over a three-year period cannot be made without pain.

"As the main Opposition party we have not been involved in any of the pre-budget discussions and we will want to scrutinise all the proposals in the proper way before making any public statements.

"At first glance the proposals look like a lot of fiddling on the edges, when it may be necessary in the face of real pressure to make more root and branch decisions.

"There are some in our group, for example, who would consider doing away with the Mayoralty altogether."

Cllr Elvie Lowe
Cllr Elvie Lowe

Elvie Lowe, leader of the Swale Liberal Democrat group, said: "My initial thoughts are that despite extra government grant the executive have moved from an earlier statement proposing the need for savings of £2 million to a statement at this time which flags up the need for savings of a minimum of £5 million over the next three years.

"Like the Tory administration at County Hall (700 proposed job cuts). Swale Borough are stating that cutting funding to service departments coupled with the possibility of staff cuts will not affect service delivery.

"I personally fail to see how this is possible. I am aware that government settlements are not the most generous and local government is constantly being asked to do more to satisfy government targets which have a financial implication, leaving local councils to pick up the financial shortfall.

"Perhaps we should call ourselves a bank? I am sure that my residents will not have a warm fuzzy feeling towards a government that has poured money into banks that have paid themselves massive bonuses, when their roads are full of pot holes and streets full of weeds because KCC and SBC have made massive cuts."

Pat Sandle, from the council's Independent Group, said the group had not been able to fully examine the proposals in detail, but were concerned about proposed cuts to front-line services.

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