OPPOSITION councillors in Wyre Forest have reacted with dismay and anger after learning Conservative-led Worcestershire County Council is facing a £5 million black hole – with more swingeing, potentially damaging, cuts to come.
They have accused the council leadership of ignoring warnings that more income from council tax was needed to balance the books.
Hundreds of job vacancies will now go unfilled, and libraries and bus services face review, in a desperate bid to avoid adding to the deficit. More measures will also be taken which could see any service deemed ‘discretionary’ likely to face the axe. Residents can also expect a big hike in council tax next year.
The council has to find a total of £17 million in savings by the end of March but has this week admitted it has no chance of achieving its goal.
It has pledged to review “the shape and size” of the council and the services it provides. This could potentially open the door to new discussions about creating unitary authorities.
Council leader Simon Geraghty blamed his council’s failure to balance the books on the growing demand for adult social care services, which accounts for around two thirds of the £324 million annual budget.
He said: “What we have done is fully set out to staff, in an open and transparent way, the pressures facing the council. Where we have vacant posts wherever possible we won’t be seeking to fill them.”
On top of the £17 million gap to be filled by March, the authority’s leadership says another £8 million of spending cuts will have to be carried over to 2019-20.
Councillor Geraghty, in an interview with BBC Hereford and Worcester, said the council was working with the Local Government Association and County Councils Network to lobby Government for a better funding deal.
He also denied any suggestion the council could go bust, claiming the council’s reserves of £100 million, including £50 million in useable reserves, insulated them from bankruptcy.
Today Councillor Fran Oborski, a senior opposition councillor at the county council, said she was dismayed to learn her warnings that the council was underestimating demand had proved accurate.
“At this year’s Budget Debate the 2017 (LibDem and Green) Group proposed an additional 1p on Council Tax. When I spoke in that debate I predicted a crisis; I was rubbished by the Tories, who said my comments might be appropriate next year but for this year everything in their Budget was completely adequate.
“I take no pleasure in being proved right!”
There were other warning signs too.
Last year the council buried a report by independent experts which called for it to take “urgent” action to address its finances. The internal review, by CIPFA (Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy), described the council’s financial planning as “overly optimistic”, “counter intuitive” and “in need of radical overhaul.” (as reported here by Wyre Life)
The report, which was only shared with Cabinet members, only came to light through a Freedom of Information request by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Yet when questioned about the warnings in a hastily arranged appearance before a council scrutiny committee earlier this year, Councillor Geraghty reassured councillors the warning was speculative and had been “taken into account” when setting the budget.
Council leaders met with selected mainstream media this morning in advance of the staff briefing. Unfortunately they chose not to invite Wyre Life to attend, denying us a chance to interview Councillor Geraghty.
Given the opportunity, we would have asked him if he now regrets not heeding the warnings from opposition councillors and CIPFA experts when setting the budget.
We would also ask if the addition of a further 1% rise in council tax would have made a difference to the position of the county council and gone some way to plugging the gap.
We would also have asked what steps council leaders have taken to date to lobby for more funding or a better settlement for the council.
We weren’t the only ones frozen out – Councillor Oborski only learned of the announcement through Wyre Life in a Facebook post, hours after the briefing.
The county is a Conservative stronghold; all six constituency MPs are Conservative, including Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Wyre Forest MP Mark Garnier.
In a statement the council said: “Demand for social care is the major factor that has led to increased budget pressure.
“Actions already taken in year, which include tighter recruitment controls, a review of all non-contracted spend, management of long term borrowing and capitalising the costs of highways maintenance, have reduced the projected overspend by more than £12.5 million.”
Councillor Geraghty said the pressures facing the council were not unique, with others also facing increases in demand for children’s services and adult social care.
“We have already taken action this year to reduce the predicted overspend. However in the absence of an agreed national solution to fund Adult Social Care we will have to continue to take difficult decisions in order to protect the most vulnerable in our society.”
Councillor Robin Lunn, who leads the opposition Labour group at the county council, said: “The crisis in funding at the council has been primarily caused, as in so many other Conservative county councils round the country, by the inability of the government to properly address or fund the increased demand as people live longer for Adult Social Care.
“Tired of the inaction, the LGA (Local Government Association) have come up with their own Green Paper which has cross party support with suggestions of how the shortfall can be met. However it is action from the government which is required.
“We are very concerned at suggestions that positions will be left unfilled, and would oppose any compulsory redundancies due to the impact on the person concerned and on all of us who use the council’s services.
“Whatever action that the council takes will not have the desired effect as demand gets greater, unless further funding is forthcoming. Until it is, and austerity in local government is reversed, we will continue to manage decline and this is certainly not where the Labour Group wishes us to be.”