GRAVE concerns have been expressed over the impact which swingeing Government cuts could have on services in East Staffordshire.
Slashed budgets within central government have seen the amount received by East Staffordshire Borough Council reduced by more than half over the five-year term of this Parliament.
The authority said that, despite the challenges, it can still present a balanced five-year financial plan, something other councils have not been able to do – but detractors say there is a real risk to services as a result of the economic changes.
“If you are saying we are offering the same level of services to our residents as we were five years ago with so much more money, I think it’s poor financial management. Why were we spending all that money when we didn’t need to?” said Labour’s Ali Chaudhry.
“The reality, as we all know, is we are not offering the same services that we were, because we can’t. We have reduced services and will keep reducing.”
Fellow Labour councillor Michael Fitzpatrick said there was ‘nothing more to cut’ to hit the 52 per cent reduction in funding, warning services would be ‘at risk’.
Another group colleague commented on the devastation of the cuts so far, which had led to staff redundancies.
But the Tory administration which led the council until the meeting denied there had been an impact on services, and refuted claims they would suffer in coming years.
Former deputy leader Julia Jessel said although she did not ‘underestimate’ the difficulties of staff who had lost their jobs, the cuts had been beneficial to the authority.
She said: “Shortages of funds are often a catalyst to a motivated way of working and making savings to run things efficiently.
“We have done that without any detrimental effect to frontline services. I agree it gets more and more difficult, but we have achieved it and we have sustained. We can continue.”
The five-year financial strategy has now been approved.
At the same meeting councillors agreed to freeze council tax for the fifth year in a row.
The portion which people pay for the borough part of the bill has been kept at an average of £168.99 for the coming year, bringing the total average bill to £1,441.
Former leader Richard Grosvenor said: “When we first set out to have a zero per cent increase five years ago, we were told we were playing fast and loose with the council’s finances. We were further told that if we wanted to do it, we should consider setting a two per cent increase for the following years.
“It was the politics of this group which has ensured council tax since has been frozen.”
But opposition councillors told the ex-leader he was being irresponsible in light of the swingeing cuts the authority was facing from central government, and warned that council tax would have to increase in future to deal with the five-year freeze.