War of words over Norfolk County Council budget
18:03 21 January 2014
Leaders at Norfolk County Council have been accused by the opposition Conservatives of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ with their proposed budget for the next year.
But Labour have turned the tables on the Conservatives, pointing out that their budget amendments are flawed and contain a £3m black hole.
The Labour/Liberal Democrat administration at Norfolk County Council this week announced the authority’s proposed budget for next year and confirmed council tax will not rise if the proposals go through.
While their £308.4m revenue budget would still see wide-ranging cuts, a number of the most contentious proposals in the Putting People First consultation on how to partially plug a £189m funding gap. have been given what council leader George Nobbs described as “a stay of execution”.
One is the proposal to cut the transport subsidy for students aged 16 to 19, which would have meant bus fare hikes for young people.
Another pull back is on personal budgets. Changes were proposed to save £12m over three years and would have meant less money would be available for wellbeing activities.
But the proposal now is to mitigate those changes by making £3m available to supported people through the proposed changes.
However, almost £60m of cuts will still be made in 2014/15, including reducing maintenance on the county’s roads by £1m cutting the subsidy for the Coasthopper bus and cutting library staff.
And Conservative leader Bill Borrett, who had said last night he was pleased that the transport subsidy and personal budgets had been granted a reprieve, said he was disappointed with the rest of the budget.
He said: “I am disappointed the budget offers so little comfort to the people of Norfolk, and it is a scandal that even though they know that it is going to be even more difficult in the future they have stolen millions of pounds from the following year’s budget.
“It will be no different to the policies which lead to the debt-laden legacy of the last Labour government.
“The cuts in adult social care, highways and recycling services are just some examples of cuts that would not have had to be made if the administration had not cancelled Enterprising Norfolk, which looked at new sources of revenue to protect services, and postponed the recruitment of the new Managing Director by six months.
“Whoever has to set next year’s budget will have a much harder job as the Labour party pushes its cuts further down the line, rather than look at generating income to protect them.
“This is a classic example of Labour financial mismanagement and is no better than robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The Conservative amendment to the budget had proposed spending £3.7m to head off some of the cuts, including to mobile libraries, highways maintenance and recycling changes.
But Steve Morphew, cabinet member for finance said they had blundered in financing those savings through the money the council will get from freezing council tax - which was already factored into the budget.
He said: “‘The Conservative budget proposals have a £3m black hole. By trying to spend the same money twice they leave a gaping hole. misleading people and demonstrating a degree of incompetence that actually won’t surprise a lot of people.
“It would actually be illegal to try to introduce such a proposal to council. If they spent more time on what the county council is there for rather than petty point scoring we might get something we could work with from them.
“We have offered the Conservatives the opportunity to work with us to balance the budget in the interests of the county, setting aside party interests for the greater good in tough times.
“Instead they persist in trying to score cheap points with emotive comments that have no basis in reality and pay no mind to the irritation they cause to those who want the county council to show some leadership.
“I can’t help wondering if they are trying to make the county council as unfit for purpose as some already suspect it is.”
Mr Borrett, on the issue of the £3m gap, said it had happened because the figure, although in the budget, had been hidden. He said: “As they have found £7.1m of new money, we could have used that to fill the gap. It’s the sort of misdirection we have come to expect.”
The county council cabinet will consider proposals for 2014-15 at a meeting next Monday, before the county council’s full budget debate on February 17.