Suffolk County Council makes massive cuts

Suffolk County Council yesterday approved a raft of controversial cuts which will see care homes closed, lollipop patrols axed, open access to youth clubs stopped and library services slashed.

Heartfelt protests and rallying cries appeared to fall on deaf ears as Suffolk County Council approved a raft of controversial cuts.

After six hours of highly charged debate and discussion in Ipswich yesterday, councillors voted 43-18 in favour of the 2011/2012 budget – a programme that has prompted wide-spread anger, frustration and fears across Waveney and Mid Suffolk and will have far-reaching consequences throughout Suffolk.

To make savings of �42.5m in the next 12 months, every single school crossing patrol will be axed, the subsidy to meals on wheels will be withdrawn and �350,000 will be slashed from the library service –putting 29 out of 44 facilities at risk of closure.

A significant �12m is being saved by closing or selling 16 care homes, open access to youth clubs will stop, and 18 waste centres, including the sites at Beccles, Brome and Southwold, will shut.

Funding is being withdrawn from the young people's eXplore travel card and the Safety Camera Partnership which oversees speed cameras.

As the protests outside Endeavour House proved, community groups had campaigned hard in recent weeks, from Eye's Love our Library group to the lollipop petition signed by 14,300 people.

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Lian Shepherd, crossing patrol worker from Carlton Colville, Lowestoft, led a campaign against the cuts and spoke at the meeting in support of the lollipop petition – one last bid to save 62 school crossing patrols.

'I am begging you not to go through with this,' she said, telling councillors to listen to their consciences.

'We see over 80,000 children safely crossing the roads of Suffolk and for that �174,000 is not a big amount.

'Every one of these children is some parent's most precious thing.'

While some had retained hoped that services could be saved at the eleventh hour, many felt the inbuilt Conservative majority ensured the budget was always going to pass without difficulty.

Two amendments were voted against, before discussion on the main budget began.

Seven Conservative councillors rebelled against their party to support a Labour-led amendment to retain crossing patrols, but it was not enough and the move was shot down by 40 votes to 26.

A Liberal Democrat amendment to totally overhaul the budget, thereby saving libraries and crossing patrols, met a similar fate with 46 votes against 18.

The �42.5m savings are just the first step in a three-year austerity programme that could see the council's budget shrink by up to �125m overall.

Unlike Norfolk County Council, Suffolk chose not to hold a 'Big Conversation' consultation process with residents, and instead launched a New Strategic Direction which it will start implementing in 2012.

The aim is to see more council services provided by private firms, community interest companies and voluntary groups – a Big Society in action.

But Liberal Democrat Mark Ereira warned if the cutting of crossing patrols was meant to be a flagship of the New Strategic Direction the majority party had 'contaminated the brand' before they had even begun.

Making her budget speech, deputy leader Jane Storey said: 'I believe that this budget has been planned to take into account that we cannot go on doing the things we have always done, because then we will get what we have always had.

'We have looked at savings that can be made by reducing the running costs of this council and they are almost 50pc of the total savings, then we have remodelling of services – doing things differently, which together with some service reductions, account for about 30pc of the savings proposed. Transferring services to communities comes along at 5pc of the savings.'

Moving to approve the budget five-and-a-half-hours after the meeting began Row Health councillor Colin Noble said the decision to freeze council tax for the next year would help 'the majority' of people in Suffolk and protecting them was paramount.