Front-line services in Norfolk will be cut, warn union leaders

Union leaders have warned that cuts to front-line services will be the inevitable result of a major review into the way Norfolk County Council is run.

But council leaders insisted savings could be made without the need for cuts, if the authority can find new ways to raise revenue.

Bosses at County Hall yesterday launched a major review amid predictions that the authority will have to plug a predicted �125m funding gap over the three years beyond 2014.

Chief executive David White has embarked on a top-to-bottom review which will lead to recommendations for savings in the spring.

But, with more than 1,600 county council jobs having already been shed and the authority midway through a three-year programme to save �135m, union leaders have warned further cuts will hit front-line services.

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Jonathan Dunning, Norfolk branch secretary of trade union UNISON, said: 'The view seems to be that central government has taken about 20pc of what it intends to take out from local government.

'When you consider what we have lost so far, if that only represents 20pc than if a further 80pc is to come out, then it will risk making local government pretty negligible.'

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He said councils could end up becoming 'husks', no longer providing services directly.

He said: 'My view is that local authorities have taken an awful hit in funding so far and there's nothing to suggest central government are going to take a different direction.

'All the things we have been saying could happen as we get closer to 2014 seem to be happening, but there's no pleasure in being proved right.

'So, in that context, it is understandable that the council is looking at how they will operate beyond 2014, if this maelstrom hits.

'But I cannot think of any further cuts that could be made without cutting into the bone itself and seriously impacting frontline services.

'The government may say that the cuts, so far, have not affected frontline services, but we know in Norfolk that is not the case.

'I just don't see how further savings can be achieved without cuts to things such as support services for schools, elderly people, trading standards, highways maintenance, that sort of thing. All those things are at risk.'

He said he believed it was time for the authority to consider increasing its share of the council tax, arguing that the government grant given to entice authorities to freeze bills had created a funding gap.

George Nobbs, leader of the Labour group at the county council, said: 'The last set of cuts, we were told, cut services to the bone, so I don't see how they can cut any deeper.

'There's no good saying they can cut out of this service or that service, because it's been done. I fear they are going to have to look at cutting adult social services, as that's the biggest spending service.

'But I know from my ward members in Crome that they are not being extravagant in adult social services at the moment. People are already being cut to a painful degree.

'I would not oppose any sensible idea of raising money, but I don't think doing something such as raising museum admissions or library fines is the answer, as it would only be the equivalent of a pin prick.'

Richard Bearman, leader of the Green group at County Hall, questioned how the authority could be so sure that it was facing a �125m funding gap, when the government has yet to announce future grants for councils.

He said: 'I would want to see much more detail on what the government settlement is going to be.

'In some ways, for the county council to be prepared is useful, but unless the predicted shortfall actually happens, do we really need to prepare in such fine detail?

'I would be very concerned if the scale of cuts envisaged actually happens because things like the youth service have suffered already and we want to protect services from being hit further.

'I am, however, keen to see the council do more to generate income, particularly through the likes of renewable energy.'

But council leader Derrick Murphy said it was too early to say what cuts, if any, would have to be made, as that was the whole point of the review.

He said: 'This review is all about looking at how the organisation is running now and one of the key things is to ensure the council is maximising how it raises revenue.

'That's one of the reasons we want to buy RAF Coltishall, because it will generate an income stream for the council.

'We have not set any savings targets and we are not saying we are going to cut �125m, because we have no idea what the next comprehensive spending review is going to mean to us.'

On whether that review would inevitably lead to cuts to services and jobs, Mr Murphy said: 'Efficiency savings, yes, new ways of working, possibly, and a more commercially minded council, definitely because we have huge potentially to raise money.

'If we get more money from other means, then the pressures to cut services or staff are reduced and I hope the need to make cuts doesn't happen.

'It's not very wise for politicians to make cut things and that's not what I want to do. For other authorities which sit around and wait for things to happen that may be what they have to do, but I'd love to be in the position where we have to cut nothing.'

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