Cuts on way – but no big closures, say Lib Dems

Vikings charge through the Peace Gardens to rally their troops for the Jorvik Viking Festival...l to r  THORFINN OLAFFSON( a Jarl) SUGURD WILFREDSON (a Huscarf) and ULF ALFUALDR ( a Styraesman)
Vikings charge through the Peace Gardens to rally their troops for the Jorvik Viking Festival...l to r THORFINN OLAFFSON( a Jarl) SUGURD WILFREDSON (a Huscarf) and ULF ALFUALDR ( a Styraesman)

SHEFFIELD will escape the type of swingeing cuts to services that are being seen in other big cities, local Liberal Democrats said this week.

As finishing touches are put to the budget for the next year, the ruling group said there will be no closures of libraries, leisure centres, museums, theatres or public toilets.

They said the weekly bins collection will be retained, the flagship free home insulation scheme will continue and funding for community projects through Community Assemblies and the safeguarding children service will be protected.

More details will be revealed next week of how the authority intends to save £80m over the next 12 months. While avoiding the extent of closures announced this week by Manchester, local Lib Dems indicated they are aiming to cut some spending in areas such as leisure centres and libraries by reducing opening hours.

Already council leaders say they have made significant headway in reducing the town hall wage bill, although the number of job losses is being put at a much higher level by trade unions, up to 1,200.

For the moment Sheffield’s ruling party is going on the attack to challenge Labour claims that the city would go into a ‘post-Soviet meltdown’ as a result of Government spending cuts.

Council leader Paul Scriven said: “The way that some local Labour politicians have been talking, Sheffielders could be forgiven for fearing the worst. But Liberal Democrats in Sheffield have rejected the kind of mass closures that have been announced by Labour councils like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.

“Our announcement shows that, despite the huge financial mess left by the last Labour Government, we will be able to protect jobs, protect the vulnerable and continue to deliver the front line services that local people value the most.”

Lib Dem cabinet member for finance Coun Simon Clement-Jones said: “Instead of simply accepting library or leisure centre closures in a few areas, we are looking at slight reductions in opening hours. Instead of ending services completely, we are looking to see how we can better target them.

“We have also ruled certain things out, such as moving to a fortnightly bin collection or going to ‘critical needs only’ for adult social care.

“Make no mistake, this is a tough budget thanks to the previous Labour Government leaving our country’s finances in a mess. But we will not be seeing the ‘post soviet’ situation that Labour predicted.”

Local Labour councillors have yet to reveal their own budget details – plans that they would have the chance to implement if they win control of the council at the next elections in May. They could even have an earlier opportunity if the Lib Dems, without an overall majority, lose the budget vote on March 4.

The Lib Dem budget includes a freeze in council tax and a two-year pay freeze for council staff earning more than £21,000. Those below £21,000 are being offered a £250 pay rise.

The Lib Dems say the pay package will save money and save up to 300 jobs. They announced last week that another 270 are to go over the next year, taking the total lost since last summer to 731 once voluntary redundancy and vacant posts not being filled are taken into account.

But unions have accused the council of not revealing the full picture. Unison regional officer Chris Jenkinson said: “What they have failed to mention is the fact that Sheffield City Council has up to a further 400 additional posts that are vacant and which will not be recruited to. In reality, the total number of jobs that will be axed or left vacant will be in the region of 1,200, out of a non-schools workforce of just over 8,000.

“This represents around a 15% cut in council jobs which will have a massive impact on the services the council will be able to deliver. What must also be remembered is that these cuts are in year one of a four-year cuts agenda.”

Mr Jenkinson said that, although the council said around half the 270 posts to be axed involve management and back office staff, “all workers contribute a valuable role in the delivery of services to the people of Sheffield”.

He said: “To try to placate the public by claiming that the job losses are not front line jobs is disingenuous and unacceptable. As jobs disappear other staff will be diverted to cover duties, including from front line activity.”

The trade union says staff working in departments where colleagues have left and not been replaced are under “enormous pressure” – having an impact on services they provide.

Unions are threatening strike action over cuts to terms and conditions for remaining staff.

…And there’s a call to arms outside the town hall

VIKING warriors made a splash in the Peace Gardens on their way to York for the annual Jorvik Viking Festival, from February 19 to 27.

The trio, who re-enact the Viking era with the York Archaeological Trust, demonstrated battle tactics and enlisted passers-by to try their hand at sword combat and war chants.