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Councillors all agree to freeze council tax this year

Friday, 13th February 2015.

Suffolk county councillors have agreed to freeze council tax for a fifth year in a row.

This means that Suffolk residents will not pay any more than they did in 2010/11, which the council says honours the pledge made by the its leader Mark Bee.

It also means a complete freeze on all council tax for Haverhill is likely, as St Edmundsbury Borough Council's cabinet has recommended a freeze and Haverhill Town Council has agreed a freeze.

Suffolk County Council says it has delivered savings in excess of £130m over the last four years.

However, the Government’s deficit reduction programme will continue until at least 2018/19 and there is a forecast of a further £120m shortfall in budget that will need to be addressed over the next three years.

This year’s budget has identified savings of £38.2million, to be made across services delivered by the council during the financial year 2015/16.

The bulk of these savings (£24.6m) will be delivered through wide-ranging transformation programmes which will result in the council becoming a leaner and more focused organisation.

This will enable the county council to deliver the best possible services within significantly reduced resources.

Plans for the largest transformation programmes propose;
* Commissioning personalised services and information to reduce service demands and support people within their own homes, saving £6m;
* Review of arrangements for children’s services surrounding early intervention and prevention, working with Police, health and wider service providers, saving £5.1m;
* Further savings from corporate and service support areas in response to the changing shape of the organisation, saving £5m;
* Development of integrated health and social care commissioning and services, saving £4.1m.

The remaining savings will be made by reducing previous contingency budgets, set aside for major projects and change management as well as making other budgetary savings from within service areas.

During the last five years there has been a reduction of around 47 per cent in workforce numbers across council services.

Further reductions are expected within the children and young people service during 2015/16 as a result of the associated transformation programme.

Cllr Jenny Antill, cabinet member for resource management, said: “These are incredibly testing times for local government. In the face of unprecedented cuts to our Revenue Support Grant from central Government, we need to ensure that front line services at Suffolk County Council, are protected as far as possible.

"In addition, we have a responsibility to ensure that every penny from the tax payer is spent where it is needed most.

"We have developed a range of transformation programmes that should allow us to do more with less over the next three years, and beyond. It is not certain that this will be sufficient to fill the estimated budget shortfall, and in that case some hard choices would need to be made.

"We do however have a clear strategy for the future, and are committed to remaining open and transparent in our decision making.

"By working closely with our residents, staff and partners, both in local government and the voluntary sector, we remain confident that we will be able to manage the challenges of the year ahead.”

The vote on the budget was taken yesterday at full council as follows: 37 in favour, 31 against.

Meanwhile, St Edmundsbury Borough Council is being recommended to agree a similar freeze.

Against a stark background of reduced Government funding – and further cuts expected in the future – St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s cabinet will be presenting a budget which freezes council tax for all councillors to consider next week.

Deputy council leader, Cllr Sara Mildmay-White, said: “The council has consistently been committed to a regime of financial discipline which means the cabinet is confidently able to recommend a council tax freeze to the full council later this month.

"This financial discipline means we have planned well, cut costs, changed the way we do things and, after listening to what people tell us, taken careful decisions about the best way to use the money entrusted to us by our residents and businesses.

"The borough of St Edmundsbury is a beautiful place in which to live and work and overall it has a thriving local economy, high standards of health and plenty of leisure and cultural facilities.

"However, we are very well aware that the financial pressures will continue and so the hard work, and hard decisions, must also continue if, through working together, we are to preserve and improve the lives of those who live, work and do business here.”

In 2014 St Edmundsbury Borough Council, working in partnership with neighbouring Forest Heath District Council as ‘West Suffolk’, adopted a shared West Suffolk Strategic Plan and Medium Term Financial Strategy.

These set out the three priorities (around supporting economic growth, families and communities, and housing) that councillors decided to focus on along with the way they would be financed.

Cllr David Ray, cabinet member responsible for resources, said: “No council, or any public body that relies on taxes, can do everything for everybody.

"Some of the money we are given has to be spent in certain areas, such as planning and licensing decisions or bin collections, but where we have choices, we choose to focus on the things which we know are extremely important to people – jobs, homes and their families and local communities.”

Examples of spending on the council’s priorities over the past few months include:
• Priority: Economic growth – investing £3 million towards the £15 million total needed for the Eastern Relief Road to unlock the 68-hectare Suffolk Business Park to the east of Bury St Edmunds (set to create around 15,000 jobs over 20-25 years);
• Priority: Families and communities – creating locality budgets for councillors to spend in their wards on things that their residents say are important to them; pooling budgets around ONE Haverhill, giving local people a direct say about spending on their priorities.
• Priority: Homes – St Edmundsbury worked with Forest Heath to adopt the first West Suffolk Housing Strategy. This sets out how both councils will work with partners to increase the supply of new homes, make the best use of existing housing (including bringing empty homes back into use) and provide specialist housing and support.

Last summer nearly 1,000 people responded to St Edmundsbury’s budget consultation and their views, reported to the performance and audit scrutiny committee in November, are reflected in next year’s budget.

Cllr Mildmay-White said: “We value the ideas and comments that people make because it’s their money we use to deliver services to our local communities.

With the public funding pot getting ever smaller, we all have a responsibility to work out how we can make the most of scarce resources by becoming more self-reliant, supporting those around us, taking pride in our own local environment.

"Through building this resilience at local level the council can concentrate on those areas where we can benefit the most people – jobs, homes and all that needs to go with them.

"We are pleased that, thanks to the efforts of councillors, staff and the public, we are setting out a budget which will freeze St Edmundsbury’s share of the council tax next year.”

At the end of January, Haverhill Town Council agreed not to increase its precept on council tax, although town clerk Colin Poole warned that the next year would require a four per cent hike and possibly a further two per cent the year after that.

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