The leading West Sussex County Council Tory group was accused of having ‘Tea Party’ tendencies during a debate about plugging a £124m gap in the budget.
Ahead of February’s full council meeting, when a financial blueprint will be voted on, members debated the most recent proposal on Friday December 12: to save £68m in the first half of a four-year financial strategy.
Cabinet member for finance Michael Brown said: “One of the many complimentary findings of the recent Independent Peer Review was that we are ‘good with finances’. And my goodness haven’t we needed to have been. The Spending Review, called upon this authority to reduce its cost base by £79m over a four year period. In practice we saved more than £100m and not over four years, but just three.”
He predicted the Government financial support for councils would ‘virtually disappear’ over the life of the plan. The cabinet has opted against a council tax increase or using reserves, but insisted frontline services would be preserved.
He said: “We will embark on yet another programme of radical efficiency measures and productivity improvements. We have done it before and we will do it again. This option maintains frontline service budgets. That’s good news for the people who depend upon our social and other services for residents.
“It allows us not to increase the burden of taxation on residents. That’s good news for the people who pay for and fund our social and other services.”
UKIP members were largely supportive, but said they should carefully prioritise the cuts. Other opposition councillors were critical.
Leader of the Lib Dem group James Walsh said: “I’m hearing it increasingly that there’s this suggestion that we may have to move to a statutory only service provider.
“That would be a very, very sad day for West Sussex where lots of things we have done well - rights of way is one issue, but that can be replicated across West Sussex.
“If we have to stop doing those things because they are not statutory services, the quality of life for our residents will undoubtedly deteriorate.
“I’m not attempting to tar everybody in the Tory party, but there is this Tea Party’ tendency both locally and centrally to do the minimum, and letting people do everything else themselves.
“I don’t think that will be accepted by the electorate even in West Sussex.”
He added it was wrong to deny frontline services had already been affected naming youth services, bus service withdrawals and social care for elderly people.
Leader of the Labour group Peter Lamb said they had to be ‘more creative’ with savings.
Also discussed was the Future West Sussex 2015-2019 Plan - a vision for the county which will determine how its finances will be spent.
Introducing that document, leader of the council Louise Goldsmith denied Dr Walsh’s concerns saying ‘despite the gloom around the money we still need to deliver services, to meet our statutory responsibilities such as the all important safeguarding duties in the face of every growing demands and we want to help people to help themselves’.
Both documents expect to be approved at February’s full council meeting.