Westcountry council has frozen ‘non-essential’ spending saying their financial situation is even worse than anticipated and it is ‘living beyond its means.’
In an email sent to staff, Somerset County Council chief executive Pat Flaherty blamed austerity measures for a projected overspend, adding the authority could not cut into reserves which were already at the absolute minimum.
He said that as a result, vacancies would not be filled unless absolutely necessary, buildings would be maintained to the bare, safe minimum standards and other measures would be taken in non-statutory areas.
Unions have reacted angrily to the move, saying they’re is ‘no more meat on the bone’ in the authority which has had to cut £100million from its budget in four years.
In his email, which has been seen by the Western Morning News, Mr Flaherty said it was no secret that setting the budget was going to be hard.
However, he added: “Over the recent months and weeks the detail of just how difficult it is going to be has got clearer.
“Sadly, the clearer the picture gets, the worse it looks.
“We all know the root causes of this – continued austerity and ever growing demand on our services, especially those for vulnerable children and adults.”
Mr Flaherty said “the fact is we are continuing to live beyond our means” and unless “we turn a corner on spending” the council will be up to £8 million overspent by the end of the year.
He said: ” This would be unacceptable as it would deplete our already minimal reserves. We therefore need to take urgent action on the spend that we do have control over.”
He said he knew the step would not be popular and praised the work of staff that doesn’t readily fit under the heading of a statutory service.
“What I am saying does not devalue that work, it simply accepts the painful reality that this council has to reduce its spending immediately if we are to be able to fulfil our statutory requirements to support the most vulnerable people in our communities,” said.
Oliver Foster-Burnell, regional organiser for Unison, said areas like services for the homeless were already suffering.
“Here in Somerset the County Council have just announced proposals that are set to see £900,000 removed from funding given to homeless services, the impact of that on the local community will be huge and costs will be felt by other authorities like the police and social Services.”
He said that the council’s announcement means that it will now look closely at how it responds to things that it regards as non-essential services across the County.
“There is just no more meat that can come off the bone here in Somerset,” he said.
“Our members have seen restructures, redundancies, changes in working practices and our message to Government is that enough is enough.
“The council has stated it is set to overspend by £7 million, its overspend within other areas like children’s social care is set to reach £11 million by the end of this financial year and the council is already using its reserves to pay for that.”
In a statement issued to the WMN, Mr Flaherty said he had make sure the council balanced its books.
“We have to legally, and this is very difficult when our funding is being cut so dramatically and there is more demand for what we do.”
He said any overspend would cut away at reserves, which were already at the minimum recommended for a council of its size and budget.
“That minimum is there for a reason and I cannot put this authority in a position where it does not have the ability to respond to unforeseen costs.”
He said that while funding was falling, the demand for services was increasing.
“Demographic pressure alone is going to add around £5m to our costs next year alone,” said Mr Flaherty.
“Living within our means is challenging but it’s something we have to do.”