Conservative Councils start the cutting

Essex County Council have revised their budget and aim to make savings of £300 million by 2010. Meanwhile, Conservatives in Lancashire are cutting education positions in a budget cutting drive.

In a further sign of the tightening financial climate across the public sector, Essex County Council have revised their budget and aim to make savings of £300 million by 2010. This represents a third of the council’s entire income, the most ambitious target set by any council. Meanwhile, Conservatives in Lancashire are cutting education positions in a budget cutting drive.

The Conservative’s flagship council in Essex have promised that savings will not adversely affect frontline services by “eliminating unnecessary processes.” Commenting on the announcement, the Leader of Essex County Council, Cllr P Hanningfield, who doubles up as a Conservative spokesman on Business in the House of Lords, said:

    “Raising our savings target to £300 million shows our commitment to delivering value for money for Essex residents. Essex is leading the way nationally when it comes to modernising the delivery of local public services.
    “This figure though is a very tangible commitment to our residents that will mean no council tax increases above inflation for four years, no cuts in front line services despite the worst operating environment for 60 years and extra investment in those services crucial to assisting Essex through this present recession.”

Reacting to the announcement, Opposition Leader, Liberal Democrat Cllr Tom Smith Hughes raised concerns over the lack of opportunity for councillors to discuss such significant savings. He said:

    “I do accept the council can’t continue to operate the way it is now. Our concern is with the way this has been carrying on. It’s a gross abrogation of responsibility not to be able to have a more informed discussion before just giving cabinet responsibility.
    “There are big problems but why haven’t we been having a major discussion with council staff?”

The Liberal Democrat’s economics spokesman at the council, David Kendall has further raised concerns over the security of jobs as Council’s plans to privatise certain services.

The news from Essex comes alongside reports from Lancashire County Council that one headteacher could be employed to run two primary schools as part of a savings drive. Responding to the news, Labour MP for West Lancashire, Rosie Cooper, promised to write to the council’s Conservative leadership and call for a full debate on the proposals. She added:

    “This document clearly demonstrates a Tory agenda for cuts, with primary schools the first victims in what I am sure will be a very long firing line. It mirrors what Osborne and Cameron are saying nationally – cuts will be made whatever the implications for the people those cuts effect.”

Cooper’s Conservative opponent at the next election, Adrian Owens, has mounted a strong defence of the council his party runs, concluding:

    “Council officers have produced a paper to be considered to deal with the parlous financial situation the government has left Lancashire in. There is no prospect of these schools closing.”

The developments in both Essex and Lancashire come alongside fears that proposed budget tightening measures at Conservative controlled Leicestershire County Council will lead to cuts to front line services.

The developments from these county councils raise a series of concerns. First, how does the failure of Essex and Lancashire councils to consult properly tally with Conservative commitments to greater transparency in government. Second, given the extent of cuts being proposed, is the Conservative policy to freeze council tax sustainable. Finally, with the budget deficit expected to hit £175 billion nationally, is it really possible to address such a large gap in the finance without it being felt at all by front line services?

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