WSCC - ‘run out of wriggle room’

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IN YOUR thought-provoking opinion column last week you were absolutely right to say that West Sussex County Council has run out of ‘wriggle room’.

In my interview with your reporter I stressed the inescapable facts behind the £79m worth of savings that we have to make over the next three financial years. It is a huge sum of money.

It is worth repeating that for ten successive years the county council has received the lowest possible grant from national government. Despite this, and largely through our own efficiencies, we have maintained a very good level of services.

But, now the Government’s drive to get the country out of debt and put our national finances back on a sound footing, is well under way, and that means that councils up and down the country face taking very difficult decisions as their grants are reduced even further.

That’s why you were right to say that we have run out of ‘wriggle room’. Taking £79m out of our budget is an enormous task, and that has inevitable consequences for both services and jobs.

I was dismayed with the headline above my interview with your reporter – ‘Tory brushes aside concern at jobs axe’ (page two, South Downs edition) – because that does not reflect my thinking or that of my colleagues in the council’s cabinet.

I fully recognise that these are very difficult times for everyone who works in public services, and West Sussex County Council is doing all it can to minimise the impact of the huge changes we are making.

What did not come across clearly was that of the 1,300 posts that will be taken out of our organisation over the next three years, 800 will transfer to the outsourcing partner we are currently seeking to take over a wide range of support functions.

This is just one of the efficiencies that we are introducing to make savings that will help protect front-line services. We are also reducing the number of offices the council has from 49 to three main hubs over the coming years as part of our drive to reduce our operating costs and protect services.

We have tried to avoid compulsory redundancies wherever possible, and I am pleased to say that the vast majority of people affected have either found alternative roles in the authority or elected to take voluntary redundancy.

An example of where we are promoting redeployment is the launch only this week at County Hall North in Horsham of an online skills exchange scheme, Staffshare, which connects major employers to candidates in other public and private sector organisations who are available for secondment.

I would stress again that these are hugely difficult economic times and taking out £79m does necessitate taking some really tough decisions that affect people and services – there is simply no alternative.

However, where we are having to reduce spending on services, we are looking as hard as possible at ways of mitigating the impact by working with a wide range of potential partners both in the public and private sectors, voluntary and charitable organisations, and, of course, our local communities.

I am grateful that you acknowledged in your comment column that county council leader Louise Goldsmith ‘has been passionate in doing all she can to protect services and vulnerable members of the community’.

I share her passion, and do firmly believe that at the end of what is going to be a very difficult few years, West Sussex County Council will still be delivering what I hope people will regard as a decent level of sustainable, and affordable services.

MICHAEL BROWN

(Con, Fernhurst) West Sussex County Council cabinet member for finance and resources

County Hall, Chichester