THE LARGEST cuts faced by Northamptonshire County Council in years have been approved by the Conservative leaders of the authority, despite the politicians admitting it was the last thing they wanted to do.
During a mammoth, eight hour meeting at County Hall yesterday, the county council’s budget proposals, which were first revealed in December, were finally approved.
They include controversial measures such as scrapping lollipop ladies, withdrawing funding from the group which provides the county’s speed cameras, turning off half the county’s street lights, cutting subsidies to bus routes, ‘remodelling’ social care services and cutting 900 council jobs.
At the start of the tense debate, the council’s cabinet member for finance, Councillor Bill Parker (Con, Brambleside) admitted the authority was only even considering such cuts because a drop in Government subsidies meant it had to find savings of £73 million.
He said: “This budget has been the most demanding and challenging in recent memory for this council.
“Not one member of the Conservative group enjoys making the kind of decisions that are in front of us, decisions that will impact on people and communities across Northamptonshire.
“We didn’t come into office with the intention of ending school crossing patrols and reducing rural bus subsidies. But we have responsibilities and we will not shirk from them.”
Before the radical plans were approved by the council, a major protest was held outside County Hall by more than 100 protesters, including disabled rights campaigners, users of children’s services and council workers.
But inside the council chamber, the leaders of the authority insisted the cuts had to go ahead, no matter how unpalatable they were.
The council’s deputy leader, Councillor Joan Kirkbride (Con, Bugbrooke) said: “We know these are difficult financial times and this budget has been hard, but it’s not all doom and gloom, because we’ll come out of this stronger, leaner and more focused.”
Some Conservative members even welcomed some of the controversial measures, such as the removal of funding from the county’s Casualty Reduction Partnership, which is likely to lead to all Northamptonshire’s speed cameras being switched off.
Councillor Phil Larratt (Con, Nene Valley) said: “I’m a bit of a Jeremy Clarkson supporter, so I’ve actually got no qualms about switching off the speed cameras.”
But members of the opposition Liberal Democrat and Labour groups who tried and failed to get their own alternative budget proposals passed, said such comments actually revealed the Conservatives’ real desire to make cuts.
The leader of the Labour opposition group, Councillor John McGhee (Lab, Kingswood) also argued the cuts could have been avoided if the Government had tried to collect cash from the country’s high-earning ‘tax dodgers’, adding: “Services will change beyond recognition because of this.
“People like lollipop ladies who keep our children safe will lose their jobs and there will also be cuts to the police and fire service. And 900 hard working people from the council will be out of a job.
“But all the Conservatives want to do is privatise everything or hand it over to the voluntary sector.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Jenny Conroy (Lib Dem, Spencer) also claimed that only services where people had been able to mount vocal campaigns, such as libraries, had been saved from the axe.
She said: “We’ve had a lot of cuts reversed where people have had a voice. So the cuts are now hitting people without a voice, those with disabilities, those who have been in prison and people with drug and alcohol problems, that’s where the cuts are now.”
Despite the arguments, the budget was approved and will come into force from April.
Mass protest against cuts
DISABLED rights campaigners, users of children’s services and council staff who face losing their jobs led a vocal protest against Northamptonshire County Council’s budget cuts.
More than 100 people gathered outside County Hall yesterday to protest about the authority’s £73 million cuts, which will see 900 council staff lose their jobs, lollipop ladies scrapped, adult social care services altered and rural bus subsidies scrapped.
Abington Vale lollipop man, Terry Evans, aged 69, said he could not understand why his £35-a-week job was being scrapped while those at the very top of the authority were not even facing a pay cut.
He said: “It’s an absolute joke. The children’s lives are the most important thing and by getting rid of people like me, they’re putting them at risk.
“I don’t know exactly when my job is going, but it won’t be long I would imagine.”
The former Church’s Shoes worker became a lollipop man after retiring six years ago. He said he would love to carry on the job as a volunteer, but would not be able to afford the insurance needed.
He added: “I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the love of it. I couldn’t care less about my wages. What annoys me is they’re hitting the people here who can’t defend themselves.”
Steve Bennett, the secretary of the county council’s Unison branch, said all the 900 council staff who faced losing their jobs because of the cuts were devastated.
He added: “People are demoralised, as they have been for some time. After all, we’ve had cuts for the past five years.
“Unfortunately, the cuts this year have been massive and our services are already stretched to the limit.
“So as a result of these cuts we’ll see more mistakes in areas like social work, and whether it’s with the elderly or the vulnerable, there will be problems in the future.”
His fears were echoed by veteran disabled rights campaigner, Chris Kinsey, who has a daughter with autism.
She said: “There’s £4 million coming out of social care, which means vulnerable people will be badly disadvantaged and we believe that anything that will potentially harm disabled people is totally immoral.
“It’s got to stop, but it won’t stop while there are people in the council who have never had to stay up all night looking after somebody who has learning disabilities.”
St James resident, Graham Croucher, who led a successful campaign to save St James library from closure, also warned libraries which faced the chop had only been given a last-minute reprieve.
He said: “This whole budget is completely flawed and the libraries closure plan is only a stay of execution in my opinion. We’re now all supposed to pass around the begging bowl so we can raise the money ourselves to pay for them.”
Controversial cuts in Northamptonshire County Council’s budget for 2011/12 include:
Scrapping lollipop crossings – Saving: £201,000
Reducing grass verge trimming and street sign cleaning – Saving: £350,000
Disbanding the county’s Casualty Reduction Partnership – Saving: £1 million
Remodelling and reduction of ‘preventative services’ such as adult social services – Saving: £4.2 million
Scrapping bus subsidies – Saving £1.4million
Increases in adult social care charges – Saving: £729,000
Increases in car parking charges at country parks – Saving: £182,000
Turn off every other street light in the county – Saving £2 million
Helping people with learning disabilities live in the community – Saving: £285,000
Cutting 900 council jobs – Saving yet to be determined
Earlier proposals which were scrapped by the authority:
The closure of eight of the county’s libraries.
A planned £150,000 saving for advice and information services has been removed
£1 million has been allocated to ‘explore new methods of public transport in the county’
Savings earmarked for Trading Standards have been reduced by a total of £150,000.