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£155m funding black hole under scrutiny

PUBLISHED: 11:36 07 September 2010 | UPDATED: 11:59 16 September 2010

PUBLIC services offered by Norfolk County Council are to be put under the microscope as the authority looks to bridge a £155m funding blackhole.

With the government set to unveil cuts of between 25pc and 40pc in next month's comprehensive spending review, senior officers and cabinet members are being told to consider four questions which could determine exactly what sort of residents receive, namely whether a service or activity is essential to help the council achieve its priorties, whether it needs to fund it, whether it can be provided at a lower cost, and also whether the authority can target those most in need.

PUBLIC services offered by Norfolk County Council are to be put under the microscope as the authority looks to bridge a £155m funding blackhole.

With the government set to unveil cuts of between 25pc and 40pc in next month's comprehensive spending review, senior officers and cabinet members are being told to consider four questions which could determine exactly what sort of residents receive, namely whether a service or activity is essential to help the council achieve its priorties, whether it needs to fund it, whether it can be provided at a lower cost, and also whether the authority can target those most in need.

A report to be considered by the ruling cabinet next week hints at the kind of “Big Society” direction the authority might be noting a recent Norfolk Forward consultation which concludes residents recognise the current scope of services is unaffordable and that trusted charities and community groups could deliver more. It also notes the people “were resigned to fees for some services going up in the future”.

“The scale of the gap is unprecedented in the council's history, and will require difficult decisions” the report,” the report said.

But the numbers are stark - government grant is predicted to cut by £60m while inflation is likely to add £37m to the cost of running services. Increased demand, fuelled by the county's rising and ageing population, will also account for an extra £41m and officers are being asked to imagine they are running services with only 75pc of the “resources”, and that means both money and staff, that they currently have.

Council tax bills would have to rise by 18pc just to find the money to bridge the government grant cuts, yet the government is proposing a council tax freeze, instead.

With revenues down the authority, which recently paid back £50m in loan debts is also considering cuts in investments - particularly those paid for by borrowing, which will hit the council's capacity to invest in roads and schools.

As yet no-one has yet to set out a credible counter position to the logic which authorities such as Norfolk are following, though there were hints in the Labour leadership hustings debate in Norwich on Sunday that this could be about to change.

While in Norfolk, unions are also starting to agitate about the plans with moves afoot to form a “coalition” against the cuts.

Daniel Cox, Leader of the Council, said while there will be difficult decisions ahead, reforms by the coalition government to give more powers to local authorities to make decisions locally could also spark new thinking on how services are delivered.

“There is no doubt that the County Council is facing the biggest challenges since it was established in the 1970s,” Mr Cox said. “There is no point in putting our heads in the sand - that would be disastrous. If we are to maintain the best services for the people of Norfolk we have got to plan ahead so that we make the most of the resources that we do have, and be innovative and imaginative in the way we take advantage of the new opportunities and freedoms that emerge from the Coalition Government's reforms.”


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