RULING Coventry city councillors intend to go ahead with the worst cuts in living memory despite public protests during a consultation, budget papers released today reveal.
Labour councillors, who have a huge majority at the Council House, are to press on with their ‘City Centre First’ three-year plan to close most council services in most communities – including libraries, youth clubs, children’s centres, community centres, adult education centres and more.
Savings of £5million a year by 2017/8 would come from concentrating those services in multi-use buildings in the city centre and just four other unspecified “disadvantaged” locations. Some savings would be found from April this year, when the plan is further developed.
Willenhall is the latest of four Coventry communities to petition against the threat of library closures, while town hall trade unions and Socialists have led wider protests against the cuts.
Coventry Unison, which repesents 2,600 council staff, and Socialist ex-councillor Dave Nellist, had called during the consultation on the council to dip into its £81million of council “reserves” to stave off the worst cuts this year. They argued that would enable the council to mount a fight to Westminster against funding cuts which have seen its government grant slashed by a third since the coalition came to power in 2010.
Labour finance cabinet member Damian Gannon said during the consultation that was not possible.
But his final budget plans today propose finding £300,000 from cash reserves for one year to avoid the previous pre-budget proposal of cutting school crossing patrols.
Today’s final budget plans are highly likely to be approved at a full council meeting on February 24, given Labour’s massive majority over the Conservative opposition.
Residents and unions will stage a demonstration against the cuts in the city centre three days before, on Saturday February 21, beginning at midday at the transport museum.
The final budget plans assume a council tax increase from April of 1.9 per cent, which the council says is the equivalent of between 30p and 40p a week for the typical Coventry household.
A further 1000 council job losses are expected over three years.
The budget identifies £15million savings as part of expected £65million budget cuts over three years.
The cuts budget, which Coun Gannon has said people “see and feel”, includes going ahead with:
* A review of whether the popular annual Godiva Festival in the War Memorial Park should be held once every two years.
* Major funding cuts to charities helping the vulnerable.
* Potentially reducing opening hours at the cultural “crown jewels” such as the Herbert Art Gallery and transport museum.
* Less street cleaning and graffiti removal.
* Fewer sports pitches.
* Closing the Priory Visitor Centre in Priory Row, which showcases archeological findings from the city’s first cathedral.
Much of the detail as to precisely which community services will close is still not available in the budget papers, which give savings estimates for different categories of services.
Coun Gannon says the drastic cuts are unavoidable with the expectation that government funding cuts will be halved by 2017/8 – resulting in £95million removed from Coventry – as the government has failed in its pledge to voters to elimate the national deficit by this year. The deficit has only been halved.
A dramatic £10million extra per year has been found for social work and to tackle a crisis in child protection since the murder of Daniel Pelka and an Ofsted “inadequate” rating. A steep rise in children “at risk” of abuse has left a huge deficit in children’s services. On top of that, £3million will be spent on children protection from cash reserves for 2015/6 only.
Councillors say the number of managers has halved, in line with staff reductions to just 9,000 council workers. But 22 senior officers continue to command total earnings of approaching or above £100,000, with chief executive Martin Reeves remunerated over £200,000 in salary and other benefits.
Coun Gannon said today: “This budget shows the stark reality of having to deliver services with at least £250 per head less to spend on every man, woman and child in Coventry than we had in 2010, and the aftermath of the recession to deal with.
“We’re continuing to focus on making sure our most vulnerable residents – children and old people alike – continue to be protected, but many other services that Coventry people have come to take for granted can’t be protected in the same way.
“Clearly, many people are very concerned about the future of our libraries, and we do understand that the uncertainty over their future is difficult for everyone.
“We will not be shutting all our libraries, as some people seem to think. But we’re also clear we’re a compact city, so it makes sense for us to reduce the number of buildings we own and work from and instead provide high quality council buildings like our new customer services centre in Broadgate which opens next year and will bring lots of council services together in one place.”
The budget also includes a capital programme – spending on one-off projects – of more than £100million next year, and the council will continue to seek to attract government and European grants for specific job-creation projects and road infrastructure.
The council will continue to promote the Friargate development for thousands of office jobs around Coventry station, with a new council HQ becoming the first tenant.