The stock response of Labour councils to a cut in government grant is to say that service cuts will be “inevitable” and to blame the Coalition. Despite this defeatist rhetoric generally Labour councils, along with the rest of local government, have not been quite so passive. Instead there has been a practical approach to maintain – or improve – services at reduced cost.
I am pleased that one Labour-run council, Warrington, has stopped moaning and is instead celebrating some of its successes in cutting spending. It has produced a document entitled 50 ways to save £50 million. The tally is for savings over three years.
But while there is much to be commended in the document it certainly does not justify the democracy-dodging 1.98 per cent Council Tax increase.
The council leader Cllr Terry O’Neill says:
“Saving money is something that councils have had to become good at. This publication is the evidence to demonstrate how Warrington Borough Council has done this by using our innovational expertise.”
That is a much better message than some of Cllr O’Neill’s colleagues, who prefer to spend their time waving bleeding stumps.
Among the larger items on Warrington’s list is £1.9 million from toughening up their procurement spending – also finding savings by joint procurement with other Manchester councils. There has been a saving of “at least” £1.6 million through “reablement” using new technology like telecare to help the elderly remain in their own homes.
Cultural Services have been taken over by a charitable trust – saving £1.1 million and allowing the services to be maintained. Privatisation of “leisure and well-being services” has seen them run by a non-profit company, Livewire, and an “increased take up of the services provided” has resulted.
Similarly “other providers” have been brought in for the youth service – reducing the cost by £662,000. At the same time it has been improved with more outdoor activities and more help for those in greatest need.
In terms of shared services, £293,000 has been saved. This is a useful sum, although with an annual budget of half a billion the council could be saving far more.
Half a million has been saved on lawyers. £1.3 million on fraud. £3 million on housing management.
The council has gained extra revenue from the New Homes Bonus with a push to bring empty homes back into use.
Now the bad news.
The Council spends £5.5 million a year in interest on its £118 million debt mountain. Yet there is no strategy to reduce this despite other councils making great progress in selling surplus assets.
Warrington has 12 per cent of its children in care in children’s home – despite many of them being in mainstream schooling. That compares with a national average of eight per cent. As well as being damaging for the children concerned, that is a hugely expensive policy.
Not all the savings are the ones that the council should boast about. There is the change in emptying the dustbins from weekly to fortnightly (or “alternate weekly” as they call it).
So there is much to celebrate in Warrington. But there are also areas where the council could be doing better. There is certainly no justification for the Council Tax increase.