SPENDING CUTS 'ILL THOUGHT OUT'
July 31, 2002
BY SARAH DAVE
A £1.4 MILLION package of savings designed to pull the district council out of financial crisis has come under fire for being "hurried and ill thought out".
The cull on services, agreed by Wokingham District Council last Thursday, comes on top of £1.5 million of savings agreed on June 27.
Both packages — drawn up by the ruling Tories — are designed to put the council back into the black after it announced a massive budget overspend in June.
But Cllr Coling Lawley, Lib Dem group deputy leader, said he was concerned with the "chronic lack of information with the savings".
The Conservatives, however, insist they have taken "swift and appropriate" action to turn around the financial problem.
Part of the package includes clawing back £243,000 by reorganising social services and housing structures, including leaving posts vacant.
Cllr Lawley said it was not clear which posts would remain vacant.
He said: "Just because a post is vacant, does not make it the right post to delete.
"When facing an overspend, there are a range of possible responses.
"At one extreme, measures are hurriedly put in place without any regard to the outcome, the other extreme is to ignore reality.
"The Conservatives have chosen the first extreme."
In the savings package, the education and cultural services budget has been shorn of £319,000 and environmental services clipped by £178,000.
There is also a £5,000 claw-back on dispensing with paper hand towels, while photocopying budgets have been reduced by 15 per cent across all departments.
Closing the staff restaurant would have saved £100,000 over three years, but at the Shute End meeting, members agreed to keep the facility despite it being in the original savings plans.
At the meeting, Tory leader Cllr Frank Browne said: "None of these cuts are easy and all will have an impact — it's not you (the Lib Dems) that wake up at three o' clock in the morning worrying about the impact of the decision you are to make.
"This package is to get this council back on a firm financial footing — we have taken swift and appropriate action.
"It was eight weeks ago that we were first told that we faced a £1.5 million overspend for the 2001/2 budget and £1.2 million of services had not been budgeted for in the 2002/3 budget.
"In those eight weeks we've found £3 million savings that will not threaten long term service provision, or require a need for compulsory redundancies."
Cllr Tim Charlesworth, executive member for education and cultural services, admitted: "It's not a perfect solution but we have to maintain the integrity of this council to deliver its services — there can be no debate that this is a mess of Lib Dem making."
But Lib Dem leader Cllr Alan Spratling said he had no prior knowledge of the overspend until after this year's local elections.
The Overview and Scrutiny committee will meet in September to probe the cause of the financial crisis.