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Small relief for library and museums, but £113m still to be cut from Birmingham council budget

Small relief for library and museums, but £113m still to be cut from Birmingham council budget

🕔10.Feb 2015

Birmingham council is to press ahead with £113 million of cuts to services and 1,000 job losses amid claims from city leader Sir Albert Bore that the end of local government is now here, writes Paul Dale.

The latest bleak news for Britain’s largest local authority follows £462 million of budget savings achieved since 2010 as a direct result of an unprecedented reduction in Government grant.

Council tax bills will rise by 1.99 per cent, the highest increase allowed by the Government without having to put the proposal to a referendum. Sir Albert rejected a cash offer from DCLG to maintain council tax at the current level, claiming that the “freeze money” would not cover all of the additional revenue the council would get from a 1.99 per cent increase.

The Labour-led council has responded to public outcry by marginally reducing the cuts package, finding an additional £3.8 million to slightly water down controversial cuts to the Library of Birmingham, the museums service and services for people with disabilities and mental health problems.

But Sir Albert accepted the £3.8 “mitigation” reflected a very minor change and that almost all of the savings identified in a budget white paper at the end of last year will go ahead.

He warned of much worse to come as the council prepares to find a further £250 million in savings over the next two years, bringing the total reduction to £821 million between 2010 and 2018 – equivalent to two-thirds of the budget the council has direct control over.

Campaigns by supporters of the arts appear to have paid off, but only at the margins.

A £1.5 million cut to the Library of Birmingham budget will be reduced by £200,000 allowing additional support for children’s reading, music and archive services. But almost all of the 100 job losses at the library set out in the white paper will go and opening hours will be reduced from 73 to 40 a week.

The library will also be handed a £3.3 million payment from the council’s general fund to make good errors in the original business case for the building which opened in September 2013. Estimates for business rates and energy costs were hugely underestimated, leaving the library with unexpectedly high running costs.

An £850,000 cut to the Birmingham Museums Trust will now be spread over two years, with £600,000 to be found in 2015-16 and £250,000 the following year. This will allow the trust more time to restructure and move to a “financially sustainable future”, the council said.

Penny Holbrook, the cabinet member responsible for library services, said: “We had significant representation from supporters of the Library of Birmingham and the Museums Trust. We are not able to offer full mitigation however much we might wish to do so and unfortunately most of the spending cuts for the library will have to be found by reducing opening hours.

“If we spread cuts to the Museums Trust over two years instead of one year this will give them time to put in place a new business model.”

Other winners from changes to the budget include the council’s football and cricket pitches. They won’t now be sold off following a rescue package funded by the Birmingham Cricket League and the Football Association.

Plans to sack scores of school crossing patrol operators have been dropped. Almost 200 of the busiest locations will be saved.

An extra £1.6 million has been found for children’s safeguarding services on top of £19.9 million already announced. The additional money is required, ironically, because the council has become much better at identifying children at risk of harm and costs have therefore risen substantially.

A move to save £150,000 a year by switching off some CCTV cameras has been dropped for the time being pending discussions with the police and other stakeholders.

A 35 per cent increase in parking charges will now be rolled out over three years, spreading the misery for motorists.

Plans to reduce the frequency of street cleaning have been shelved, at a cost of £1.5 million.

The impact on front line services is likely to be far more severe in 2016-17, Sir Albert admitted.

Council leaders are consulting with district committee chairs over the future of neighbourhood offices, youth services and community libraries. Discussions are taking place with community library staff about setting up a mutual company independent of the council in an effort to preserve at least some of the existing service.

Sir Albert insisted he had been “open and honest” with the people of Birmingham about the state of the council’s finances. He added: “We always aim to put residents first and offer excellent services, and the efforts we are making at a council level are making a positive difference, but each year this is more and more difficult.

“The Government cuts that are handed down to us mean we now really have reached the end of local government as we know it. We will work closely with our communities and partners but things will undoubtedly need to be significantly reshaped in the years ahead.

“We’ve shown with the budget we are proposing that we are a listening council and where we can refine our initial plans through extensive public consultation, we will. There is not much room for manoeuvre but the budget consultation process which we enhanced with online webcasts this year does give people a genuine chance to have their say within the financial constraints we face.”

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