£24 million budget axe falls at 'stormy' Cumbria County Council meeting (From The Westmorland Gazette)
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£24 million budget axe falls at 'stormy' Cumbria County Council meeting
NEARLY £25 million of cuts, savings and controversial charging initiatives have been sanctioned at a sometimes stormy budget-setting meeting of Cumbria County Council today.
The axe will fall on 70 subsidised bus services from April 2015, while fare help for 16-to-19-year-olds will be phased out to new students from September this year.
Dalton-in-Furness fire station will close and be sold off, while a full-time fire engine from Barrow will be relocated to serve Ulverston, which will lose an on-call engine.
Fire Brigades Union members picketed the packed out meeting at County Hall in Kendal, although plans to take pumps from Kendal Fire Station and Penrith have been scrapped.
On-street parking charges will also be introduced on ‘highly-congested’ town centre streets and residents in parking permit areas will have to pay £25 a year in future.
Six hundred jobs will go from the council, the 11 million miles clocked up in council pool cars will be scrutinised and the budget for training councillors will be halved.
Six local area committees will see their grant pots cut by 20 per cent and the authority is bidding to reduce the £3.7 million it spends on 44,000 streetlights.
However, there will be no increase in the county's take from council tax bills.
A further £52 million of savings are to follow over the financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17.
And the administration says the Government is taking a pound for every four the council has to spend.
The ruling Lab-Lib Dem coalition in charge said the cuts were ‘born and bred in Downing Street’ and pointed the blame at Chancellor George Osborne.
Windermere-based Jo Stephenson, the Lib Dem deputy leader of the council and the council’s finance portfolio holder, said CCC had to balance its books.
He pointed out that it still planned to invest in children’s services, troubled secondary schools, adult social care, the environment, introducing a living wage across CCC and diverting nearly £1 million of new funding to fix storm-damaged Cumbria.
Members of the coalition said they had worked hard to protect Cumbria’s ‘most vulnerable’ – despite unprecedented funding reductions.
But Conservative opposition councillors branded it a ‘comic book’ budget and called for alternatives and resignations.
They accused the coalition partners of abandoning rural citizens in favour of Cumbria’s urban areas.
Council leader, Labour’s Stewart Young, explained CCC had already saved £88 million but now needed to find a further £89 million over the next three years.
Coun Young said: “There’s a perception that somehow the government can keep taking money from local government without it having any impact on local frontline services – this is not the case.
“These are very difficult choices. We are in the process of becoming a much smaller organisation.”
And Coun Stephenson said: “The situation is grim and nationally the Government is continuing to reduce local authority expenditure.
“Local councils are having to bear the burden. But protecting the vulnerable remains our priority. The new fiscal landscape is likely to be here for years to come and for the next decade at least.
"No-one enters politics hoping for the opportunity to make cuts, I certainly didn’t. Nor did I enter politics to be popular or shy away from difficult decisions."
But the budget proposals came under sustained attack from opposition Conservatives.
Coun James Airey, leader of the Tories, claimed the withdrawal from subsidising bus services for teens could cost families £1400 a year.
“Never has a budget put forward by so few damaged so many," he said.
"Never has such butchery been vested upon those living, working and wishing to get educated in our rural areas."
"Today’s budget proposals put before us by the Lib Dem deputy leader are a complete betrayal of our rural areas."
Coun Airey added: "On street parking charges will be the final nail in the coffin for our market towns and many of our small businesses.”
“This is a Labour budget – designed, written, worked on by Stewart Young.”
And deputy Conservative leader, Gary Strong, said: “This budget is lacking thought and vision. It’s smoke and mirrors and using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
“In rural areas, bus services are not a luxury - they are a lifeline. Not everyone has a car. It’s a shoddy budget from a shoddy administration and that administration should go.”
An alternative Conservative budget, which among other things proposed cuts to children’s clothing grants, closing three ‘underutilised’ care homes in Cumbria and a funding reduction to children’s centres, was defeated.
After several hours of debate, the administrations' budget was agreed by the Lab-Lib Dem majority.