Council tax freeze, but £54m budget cuts are on the way

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News: Sheffield Telegraph online 24-hours a day.

Council tax in Sheffield is to be frozen for the fourth year in a row against a backdrop of cuts of £54m over the next year.

Ruling Labour councillors say they are facing an even more daunting challenge to balance the books - but are resisting an option of adding to the financial burden of “hard-up” local people.

Yet there is no sign of an end to job losses at the town hall or reductions in council services.

The Government was informed this week that up to 600 more jobs could go over the next 12 months, although the council said this was an estimate based on a worst case scenario. A similar exercise last year produced 600 - and the actual figure was 300, with many workers going under voluntary severance or early retirement.

Details of how £54m can be saved will be examined over the next few weeks. A public consultation meeting was being held last night (Wednesday).

It is unlikely that there will be any of the high profile proposals produced last year with the closures of Don Valley Stadium, Stocksbridge Leisure Centre and up to 16 libraries (although the library closure programme has still not been confirmed).

But with the exception of the safeguarding children service, just about all areas of council activity will feel the pain.

Cabinet finance member Coun Ben Curran said: “These are unprecedented times for Sheffield City Council. By 2015 this council will have lost 50% of its funding from central government over the last five years. We cannot take such a hit without this having a serious impact in terms of what we can and can’t deliver as a council.

“We have taken a careful and measured approach in terms of the budget but we have to make difficult decisions to save jobs and keep vital public services while protecting vulnerable citizens. But the bottom line is this cannot be sustained and more difficult decisions are likely in the future. And the evidence shows councils in the north of England have been hit far harder than those in the south and south east, which cannot be fair by anyone’s standards.

“We also recognise the cost of living has reached crisis point for many in terms of making ends meet and that is why we are proposing to freeze council tax.”

Although the 2014/15 budget is now being hammered out, some consequences are already in the pipeline.

They range from cuts in spending on adult social care and activities for young people to allowing roadside shrub beds to become more natural and higher charges for the likes of pest control, allotments and bereavement services.

More cuts - up to £70m - are predicted for the next year.

Opposition Liberals Democrats welcomed the council tax freeze.

Finance spokesperson Coun Andrew Sangar said: “I’m glad that Labour politicians have finally seen sense and bowed to local pressure. It’s difficult to understand why Labour bosses dithered over this decision when funding has been made available from Government to freeze the tax.”