Change in the air in Sheffield as £50m cuts bite

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A RADICAL rethink of council services in Sheffield was signalled this week in response to the toughest spending cuts “in generations”.

Ruling Labour councillors said they were being forced to reassess what the authority can continue to do, and what it will no longer be able to do, as they get to grips with chopping next year’s budget by £50m - £10m more than expected.

It is being estimated that numbers of town hall jobs in the “high hundreds” will have to go - after the loss of 1,460 over the past two years.

No firm details of the likely effects on services are being given, but the latest financial scenario will ramp up the pressure on the likes of libraries, parks, culture and leisure, which do not have the statutory protection afforded to parts of education and social services.

Council leaders, directing their anger at the Government, suggested that it may lead, for example, to less maintenance in the parks, and there is now added urgency to the recent review of libraries, which look increasingly vulnerable.

Also under pressure could be grants to events such as the Tramlines music festival, the DocFest documentary film festival, the Sheffield Fayre and the Fright Night Hallowe’en celebrations, although it was being emphasised that the council would not be abandoning them in recognition of the visitors and money they bring into the city.

More than ever, the authority aims to work with the private sector and the voluntary and faith sectors to try to protect as much as possible - while acknowledging that they, too, are feeling the pain.

Council leader Julie Dore said: “People are going to see major changes.”

She added: “I am passionate about Sheffield and providing good value for money services to local people, but the latest news that we will be hit even harder is a real body blow and without doubt savage and unfair.”

Officers, too, accepted the scale of the challenge. Chief executive John Mothersole said spending had already been cut to the bone. “Next year feels very different in the sense that everything, apart from the protected core services, will have to change.”

Already Sheffield has saved £141m over the past two years in line with the austerity drive that the Government says is crucial to restoring national economic fortunes.

Among the casualties have been the weekly bin collections, now fortnightly, and the scrapping of the green waste collection.

The authority had expected to cut a further £40m next year, only to calculate that the figure has risen to £50m, without taking into account additional pressures such as higher energy bills, other rising prices and increasing demand for services, especially from the elderly.

It claims that the Government has ‘moved the goalposts’ over a raft of grants, notably for business rates and housing benefits, that have suddenly left authorities even more out of pocket.

Labour leaders in Sheffield expressed their fury this week at their belief that the whole grant systems was penalising northern cities and, in particular, their poorer residents.

The Government announced this week that it will provide extra money to allow town halls to freeze council tax for a third year. Sheffield will ponder the details before making a final decision, and it must wait until December before the Government spells out the minutiae of all the city’s grants.

Coun Bryan Lodge, cabinet member for finance and resources, said: “We are under no illusion that the months ahead and indeed years, are going to be the toughest we have faced in generations thanks to a double whammy of cut upon cut by the Government.

“We will do all we can to reduce our spending in a fair way and minimise the impact, where we can, on our communities.

“However, at the moment, there is very little that we can rule in or out as we put the spotlight on our spending. It will be tough but we hope local communities will understand the position we are now put in and wherever possible work with us.”

But opposition Liberal Democrats said there was still scope for savings.

Coun Simon Clement-Jones, shadow cabinet member for finance, said: “Too often Labour politicians have used Sheffield City Council as a battering ram against the Government. It’s vital that instead making political points, the council uses the funds it does have to protect frontline services.

“For example, Labour councillors have earmarked over £2m next year to pay for a makeover of town hall meeting rooms. Given the suggestions Labour councillors are discussing, we don’t see how this kind of wasteful spending can be justified.

“In addition to this, Labour have committed over £500,000 to trade union officials and allocated further funds to the Park Hill project.

“Taken together these savings could reduce the pressure on the services that local people really care about.”