Wiltshire Council's budget for 2019-2020 means massive savings and cutsThis week the funding for local authorities has been debated in Parliament and Wiltshire Council's cabinet have approved its budget for 2019-2020 - with identified 'savings' of £27,290,000 and a 2.99 per cent rise in the main portion of Council Tax that is levied across the county.
(The total increase in Council Tax bills for each area depends on town and parish councils' precept levels. But the increase in the police precept for 2019-2020 has been agreed today (February 7) at an extra £2 a month for the average (Band D) property - bringing it to £17.19 a month.)
Wiltshire Council say that the cuts - or 'savings' - it is having to make to achieve a balanced budget - largely due to the continuing decrease in funding from central government - are the deepest they have had to make since the Conservatives' austerity drive began in 2010.
Many of the savings outlined in the documents before the cabinet meeting (February 5) are fairly opaque and often complex, but we can now outline some of the more notable ones.
The Council's Health Select Committee have pointed out that '58 per cent of the overall savings for the entire budget' - or £16,068,000 - will come from the 'ongoing adult care transformation programme' - despite what the Council calls a 'significant growth in demand for the services'.
The Committee asked for assurances that this was deliverable. "In response it was stated that every saving, high and low, was tested rigorously on its deliverability and that as a long-term process many of the savings had been identified for some time or changes had already been enacted." 'Deliverable', but there was no assurance that the new level of services would be as satisfactory for those needing them.
Despite the rising demand for services for children and young people with special education needs and disabilities (SEND), Wiltshire Council's 'Learning Difficulties' services face cuts totalling £2,657,000.
These cuts prompted the Health Select Committee to send a reminder to cabinet members: "In relation to savings within the Learning Disabilities service, it was noted that this was a sensitive area, and that any savings proposed must be realistic and handled very carefully."
'Children's Social Care' has target savings totalling £2,500,000.
The county's remaining Children's Centres (which used to be called Sure Start Centres) are under review. Wiltshire Council is looking for people's views on "New proposals to build on [the] successful community model for children’s centre services...to expand its successful model of providing children’s centre services in local community venues."
(Marlborough's Sure Start Centre at the Corner House in the George Lane car park closed on 30 June 2016. Services were reduced to two days a week at the Library - one of the intended 'community venues' the Council now wants to use elsewhere.)
Other 'one-line' cuts/savings - at varying levels - include:
• 'Mental Health Redesign: £232,000'
• 'Other Public Health Savings to be identified due to cut in Public Health Grant [from central government]: £450,000'
• 'Occupational Health - reduce doctor days from 22 to 16 per annum & upskill nurse: £6,000'
• 'Occupational Health - Counselling - cut down number of sessions...and/or raise eligibility bar: £10,000'
• 'Occupational health - Physio - stop providing: £7,000'
• 'Terminate Grant to Wiltshire Wildlife Trust: £100,000'
• 'Citizens Advice Bureau reduction in funding: £35,000'
• 'Close Park And Ride Toilets (Salisbury): £45,000'
• The closure of the Everleigh Household Recycling Centre provides a saving of: £135,000
There is an interesting saving of £100,000 in the 'Housing Services' budget. This is being taken "...due to an increase in the government's FHSG [Flexible Homelessness Support Grant] contributions following the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act for 19/20." This seems to imply that the improved homelessness services called for in the Act may not be forthcoming in Wiltshire.
It seems certain that as more of the unitary council's responsibilities are passed down to town and parish councils, the local portion of council tax bills will continue to rise: "The Council has completed a significant Community Working Review."
"The resulting action plans provide a focus on continuing and significant devolution of assets and services to communities. Transfers of packages of assets and services to town and parish councils continue..."
This is 'significant' in that it will mean continuing rises not just in the Wiltshire Council portion of Council Tax, but also 'significant' increases in the Council Tax precepts raised by town and parish councils that inherit service responsibilities in this devolution process - and have to pay people to run and provide them.
The full list of savings (some of which are lines of new or expected income) and cuts can be read here.
There is always a way to find the brighter side of such budget processes and their swingeing cuts. The press release announcing cabinet's discussion and approval of the 2019-2020 budget was headlined: "Wiltshire Council takes control of finances as first budget without reliance on government grants is unveiled".