County council to slash £68m from its budget

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A TOTAL of £68m will be reduced from West Sussex County Council’s spending over the next two years after members voted through budget proposals at a heated full council meeting today.

County council members at the same time voted to freeze its share of council tax for a fifth year and spend more than £500million next year on a range of services, including £6.4m on high-speed broadband, £15m in the Better Roads programme and £20m for economic investment.

The budget reduction of £68m, part of a £124m reduction in WSCC’s budget over the next four years, was passed by a large majority with 43 members voting in favour, six against and 13 abstentions.

At Friday’s meeting, held at Chichester College, Michael Brown, cabinet member for finance, said the reductions came amid a significant drop in central government funding and said members or residents would be ‘hard pushed’ to call the plans cuts to frontline services.

He said: “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.”

Cllr Brown insisted the savings would come from renegotiating existing contracts and redesigning existing services to make the county council more efficient.

While there was general support for the budget from most of the councillors, including opposing parties, criticism came for the previous cuts made to services which were ‘only now starting to bite’.

The £1.6m cuts to West Sussex Fire & Rescue Service, approved last October, was a hot topic of debate, as was what was called a ‘serious lack of care home beds for elderly people across West Sussex’.

Dr James Walsh (Lib Dem) said: “For Mr Brown to say the £79m worth of cuts we’ve already been through, with another £70m worth of cuts over the next couple of years without anyone noticing in West Sussex is disingenuous.

“I’m really concerned by this constant repetition that there will be no frontline cuts.

“That maybe 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.”

There were five proposed amendments to the budget. They all called for the council to dip into its millions of reserves to: increase spending on highways; increase care home capacity; reverse the fire services cuts; increase local welfare provision; reverse the highways budget reduction.

Four were put forward by the Labour group with one put forward by UKIP, and all five motions were rejected as councillors voted to pass the original budget plans.

Full details of what the budget reductions and spending plans mean in next week’s paper.