County votes to slash budget

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West Sussex county councillors have voted in favour of slashing their budget by £68million over the next two years.

Michael Brown (Con, Fernhurst), cabinet member for finance, insisted at a county council meeting the reduction represented ‘clear efficiency savings’ and not cuts to frontline services.

While this largely went unchallenged, some councillors called for extra investment in some services, particularly fire and for the care of the elderly, with previous council cuts ‘only now starting to bite’.

Members also voted to freeze West Sussex County Council’s share of council tax for a fifth straight year.

Friday’s full council meeting, held at Chichester College, also saw councillors vote through proposals on where WSCC will spend its £500m-plus budget.

Mr Brown said the need to cut the budget came from another significant reduction in central government funding.

“Over the last four years this council has saved £100m down to the very last penny.

“It was a formidable achievement but we must repeat it if we are going to cope with the government’s austerity measures.

“We will make future savings of £124m over the next four years and £68m of that will be made in 2015-16, and 2016-17.

“These are not cuts to frontline services but genuine efficiency savings and I defy anyone in this chamber or outside it to argue otherwise.”

While reducing its budget by £39m next year and £29m the following year overall, councillors approved plans to spend more than £500m on a range of services.

This includes £6.4m for high-speed broadband across the county, a further £15m in road improvement and £5m for the Think Family scheme.

Nearly £140m has been allocated for capital investment including £6m to build a new solar farm at Tangmere, schools and the county’s economy.

Mr Brown added: “We have a major programme of capital investment - none of which requires us to borrow a penny in funding from any third party.”

While there was little criticism for the latest budget, there were passionate calls for extra investment in ‘struggling’ services to be taken from the millions the council has in reserves.

Dr James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East), said: “I’m really concerned by this constant repetition that there will be no frontline cuts.

“That may be true in the future, but the frontline cuts that have already taken place in the eligibility criteria for social care, to youth services, to bus services, these cuts are still happening.”

Five amendments to the budget were mooted, four from the Labour group and one from UKIP.

Labour asked for the £1.6m cuts to fire services, agreed last October, to be reversed; £3m of capital reserves to be spent on increasing care home capacity; to reverse the Highways £300,000 budget reduction; and to transfer the £500,000 Be the Business budget to adult social care.

UKIP asked for £3m to be transferred from the £12m infrastructure reserves to improve adult and children’s social care.

Conservative councillor Duncan Crow (Tilgate and Furnace Green) accused opposition parties of looking for a ‘mystical money tree’.

A number of councillors praised the budget.

Pat Arculus (Con, Pulborough) said: “We would all love there to be more money to spend but with this budget they have done the very best they can.”

All five amendments were taken to a vote and rejected on a majority before the cabinet’s budget plan was approved, with 43 in favour, six against and 13 abstaining.

n See letters to the editor, pages 26&27.