Stevenage feels the pain as cuts bite

Stevenage Borough Council announced its budget for the coming year last night (Wednesday) with unanimous approval of its �1.6m cuts over the coming year.

The savings package will impact on council workers, play schemes, community transport for the vulnerable, lunch clubs, grants for community groups, business support, museum opening hours, pest control and park maintenance.

At �10.7million the budget is significantly lower than last year, the result of a �925,000 cut in funding from central government.

Like other authorities in Comet country, the council announced a freeze on council tax. A Band D property in the town will remain at �1,455 a year.

Council leader Sharon Taylor said these were “challenging times for everyone.”

“While I am pleased that we can cushion the blow for residents by not imposing an increase to council tax, the harsh reduction in government funding means that some services will, regrettably, have to change.

“We’ve spent the past few months considering areas where we can make savings and we’ve involved Stevenage people in this process. The strength of feeling about specific services has led to us developing alternative proposals that continue to address people’s needs but still allow us to save money.

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“We hope to open the Museum for more than the three days originally proposed, with the future support of staff and volunteers. And, recognising the value of our free play activities to tight family budgets, we will find funding for additional play equipment.”

The authority pledged to continue supporting the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and the Council for Voluntary Service, as well as contributing more than �500,000 to the voluntary sector over the next year.

Cllr Taylor added that it has been a difficult time for council staff who face 45 compulsory redundancies.

“Their contribution to the delivery of high quality services should not go unrecognised, and their capacity to adapt as the environment demands should be commended. It is regrettable that financial circumstances mean that we must reduce our workforce.

She added: “We have kept service cuts to a minimum and we will continue to do so. A reduction of more than a quarter of our government grant over the next two years means that we can’t stay the same, and we are changing and evolving in order to accommodate this. As the financial cuts hit, we will work with people that use council services to explore different ways of providing and managing those services to the mutual benefit of everyone involved.”

Liberal Democrat leader Robin Parker, who supported the cuts, blamed them on previous over-spending at the council.

“There are two reasons for the cuts. First, the Labour dominated Stevenage Borough Council spent up to over �3 million a year more than it was receiving. This went on for years until a couple of years ago. Obviously the council’s balances were drained – as I warned at the time – and SBC were therefore less able to withstand the effects of the recession and government action to tackle the deficit.”

“Secondly, the Labour council had just belatedly got this under control by 2010/2011, when the Labour government were kicked out, leaving huge extra borrowing at a rate of �157b a year. The 15 per cent cut in government grants for SBC in 2011/2012 are a direct consequence of this. You cannot go on borrowing more and more for ever.”

He added that the freeze on council tax, made possible by a central government grant, was a victory for the coalition.

A group calling themselves the Stevenage Anti Cuts Union protested outside the council offices last night, calling on councillors to protect workers’ jobs and pay conditions. Members criticised the council for not standing up to central government.