Somerset County Council has announced a number of ambitious investment projects to improve key services and save money as it reveals the extent it will be forced to make cuts and savings over the next four years.
With a drastic reduction in funding from government, coupled with increased costs and rising demand to look after elderly and disabled people, the Council faces a £106m black hole in its finances over the next four years – with cuts of £30m required for next year alone.
As well as unveiling the first phase of a series of savings, totalling around £7m, the Council is also announcing proposals where it has been able to listen to calls from the public.
“This is a very tough year for Somerset and this first phase of savings has been incredibly difficult,” said Council Leader John Osman. “We have run roadshows and consultation events to listen to the public and in some cases we have changed or even stopped suggested proposals as a result of what we have learned.”
But Cllr Osman was also keen to promote investment and improvements that the Council was able to make after saving money by selling buildings it no longer needed such as county farms.
These proposals include:
Walk to school routes: Improving paths and road safety projects in a number of areas to help children walk to school and no longer require bus trips. This could help more than 200 children and their families.
Cheaper energy bills: Investing in new LED lamps replacement programme for Somerset’s 54,000 street lights in a bid to save around £300,000 per year every year. A further proposal could see more street lights dimmed or switched off through part of the night subject to local consultations.
Fewer empty beds: Changing the way our learning disabilities service operates to place people in more modern and pleasant buildings and removing the need to pay for unused or empty beds, and freeing up some buildings to be sold off.
Leaving the Council: Heritage services, including museums, are proposed to move to a not-for-profit Trust status helping them gain access to extra funding outside of Somerset County Council. Somerset Skills and Learning is proposed to move to a social enterprise business. Both proposals would deliver savings to the council and have the potential to provide a better service to the public.
As well as the investment proposals highlighted above, a series of decisions to close the budget deficit gap will also be taken at November’s Cabinet meeting. Proposals for discussion include:
Waste and recycling centres – Somerset Waste Partnership will be asked to make savings which could result in poorly used Community Recycling Sites closing. It is, however, hoped that a restructure of services could see some of the busiest Recycling Centres return to seven days a week opening in response to public demand. It should be noted that this saving proposal will not be made by SCC but discussed by the Waste Partnership.
Environmental teams – Reduced spending in various areas including rights of way, canal paths and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). A further proposal could see the removal of roles in the countryside, ecology, and associated teams. It could also see the ending of funding for the Somerset Visitor Centre currently located at Sedgemoor Services.
Roads – Reduced spending on environmental maintenance such as verge cutting, drainage, hedge trimming and weed control and reducing management costs.
Staff costs – These proposals for Cabinet decisions would see the Council lose around 60 jobs with a further 300+ moved into trust or social enterprises.
Raising income by increasing charges, charging for the first time and a review of where we may be able to charge in the future. For example an increase in fees for marriages up from between £80 and £130 depending on days of the week.
Further comprehensive savings proposals to close the financial deficit will be discussed in January and February as the Council sets its annual budget.
“I appeal to the public to take part in consultations, to take part in our “balancing act” exercise through the Council’s website and facebook, and to continue to give us vital feedback and comment as we look to face up to a very challenging financial outlook,” said Cllr Osman