West Sussex County Council must ‘come clean’ about the impact cabinet proposals to cut £141m from the authority’s public services budgets will have on people’s lives.
That is the call from UNISON West Sussex, campaign group Don’t Cut Us Out, as well as the Liberal Democrats at County Hall.
Tomorrow (December 13), the full council will debate multi-million pound figures, but its Conservative leadership is being accused of not revealing how the ‘staggering’ sums will affect the residents of West Sussex.
“The council hasn’t yet come clean with residents as to what these cuts will mean for local people,” said UNISON West Sussex branch secretary Dan Sartin.
“There is still a view held by some councillors that you can put a scythe to public services and residents won’t notice, that somehow these cuts represent ‘efficiencies’ or ‘savings’.
“They don’t. There is no fat left to cut.”
Dr James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton) agreed, declaring the new cuts to services would ‘very strongly and adversely affect the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people in West Sussex’.
“I think there has been very little honesty so far with people as to what the cuts are going to mean,” added Dr Walsh.
Mr Sartin said: “The council isn’t being transparent at this stage – perhaps this is how it feels it can best manage the public and their response?
“But the sums involved are staggering.”
The local UNISON branch has presented a list of outcomes which it believes will result from the stark figures presented by the council.
It includes; significant closures of Children & Family Centres; Youth Services pared to the bone; delays to residential care placements; reducing personal budgets of disabled people and the elderly infirm; reducing the number of qualified social workers; further privatisation, being used to force down the wages and pensions of care workers; and closing or privatising the eight remaining specialist day centres, including the Henfield Centre.
However, this has prompted Michael Brown, WSCC cabinet member for finance, to accuse UNISON of being ‘misleading’.
“Unison is speculating about likely outcomes, and that is misleading at this early stage in the process,” he said.
“The budget process will be fully transparent throughout, and we will be giving details later this week of how people can take part in a consultation.”
Dr Walsh said he takes ‘completely the opposite view’ from Mr Brown and said that in the absence of any firm proposals from the administration, such speculation ‘is vital’ and in the public interest.
Meanwhile, Don’t Cut Us Out is criticising WSCC’s public consultation to date, and the fact the authority only revealed its proposals for service cuts when its ‘engagement with the public’ through a series of Road Shows was almost at an end.
“So much for openness and transparency at these events,” said Margaret Guest, the group’s chair.
“When members of the public who attended these Road Shows asked where the axe would fall, they were told ‘No decisions had been taken’.”
“We now know that there is a proposal to cut council services by £61.6m over the next two years with a further £79m cuts to come in the following two years, amounting in total to £141m.
“Such a level of cuts to council expenditure cannot be achieved simply by ‘working more closely with partners’ and ‘making more efficiencies’, as some councillors claimed at the Road Shows.
“Instead, it will mean further devastating cuts in services for those who rely on council services the most; the very people who have already born the burden of the previous £79m of cuts implemented by WSCC over the last three years.”
Speaking on behalf of the council administration, Mr Brown said: “Introducing a saving plan for the next two financial years at this stage rather than a four year plan will allow us time to make informed judgements and look at the best way of meeting our priorities because there are still many financial uncertainties ahead.
“The draft savings proposals are significant and will reduce some service budgets, but there are also many reductions we are proposing to make through internal efficiencies that will not have any impact on residents.”
Precisely what these could be is yet to be determined, or at least revealed, leading Dr Walsh to say: “While the details have not been spelt out, there is no way you can cut £60m without having an impact on individual people’s lives, on their quality of care, and the amount of care they can expect in their failing years.”
The WSCC Full Council meeting takes place at County Hall, Chichester, on December 13 at 10.30am. Visit www.westsussex.gov.uk to watch the debate live and read the schedule of proposed cuts.