Clever way to cut £20m – or a PR exercise?

Coun Tony Williams
Coun Tony Williams
Have your say

How would you save £20m?

That is the question cash-strapped Blackpool Council is asking residents as it looks ahead to its budget for next year.

It’s just a shame that councils haven’t been doing this through the good years when they were awash with cash and making their own reckless decisions

The authority, which has had its spending slashed by £93m in the last five years, is inviting people to undertake an online survey which allows them to set out their priorities for expenditure.

Participants have to put themselves in the shoes of town hall chiefs by choosing between axing social workers, shutting libraries and charging people to use the household tip for example.

Once they have set their budgets, residents can add on other services they would also like to see - before being asked if they would be willing to pay more council tax to cover the extra cost.

Already hundreds of people have taken part online while face-to-face sessions are also being held around the resort this month.

This year the council had to cut £25m from its budget and shed 300 jobs in order to agree a spending of £128m in 2015/16, with council tax set at £1,529 for an average band D property.

Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Conservatives on Blackpool Council, said: “This is something local councils are doing all over the UK and of course it’s a good idea to listen to residents - isn’t that what councils are supposed to do.

“It’s just a shame that councils haven’t been doing this through the good years when they were awash with cash and making their own reckless decisions.

“One of the pledges we made in our election campaign was to give the people in Blackpool more say on how the council operates. I am delighted that this council has finally go the message.”

Dave Blacker, a community activist mainly working in Talbot ward, welcomed the chance to take part in budget discussions.

He said: “I think it is right the council is consulting with residents as it makes people realise how difficult these decisions are.

“And if you don’t consult with the community, it doesn’t give you any accountability.”

But James Sorah, of Blackpool Against the Cuts, branded it a ‘PR exercise’.

He said: “Councils are in an invidious position.But this is just a PR exercise which normalises the idea of making cuts and I think that’s a really bad idea for a Labour council.

“I think they should be explaining why they are making these cuts and who is to blame.”

Tough decisions as part of this year’s budget cuts include the closure of two nurseries at Grange Park and Talbot and Brunswick Sure Start Centres with the loss to 26 jobs, to save £250,000.

Another £150,000 is being saved by transferring the Supported Living Service to the private sector with the loss of 52 jobs.

Residents can complete the survey by attending face-to-face sessions at the City Learning Centre at Grange Park, the Solaris Centre and in St John’s Square.

Coun Simon Blackburn, Leader of Blackpool Council, said: “We have a further £20m to save in the next financial year due to the continuing cuts the Government is inflicting on us.

“Having already devastated our public services by taking £93m from Blackpool over the last five years and now we’re being asked to save a further £20m.

“The people of Blackpool are not daft and they know that’s an incredibly difficult task.

“We’ve already made many more cuts than we would ever want to but we simply have no choice but to continue.

“In order to make these difficult decisions we have to set priorities of what to protect and what services can be reduced or scaled back in some way.

“The survey is a good way of doing that and helping people to understand the difficult choices we’re facing day-in and day-out.

“I would urge people to take part and let us know their views.”

How the survey works....

There are 22 areas of spending to consider, ranging from libraries, supporting the economy, heritage, and the Illuminations, to children’s social work, adoption services and care for the elderly.

Options include choosing between cutting frontline services such as street cleansing, bin collections and highway maintenance to considering functions such as building management, debt recovery and handling benefits.

Participants in the survey can choose from three levels of cuts, from leaving a service as it is to axing up to 20 per cent of the current spending.

But they are warned some services, such as children’s social work are statutory requirements and the council could face legal action if it fails to meet its obligations.

Meanwhile the risk of targeting other services are also highlighted.

For example people are warned cutting 10 per cent from supporting the economy is “likely to cause reduced visitor numbers and decline of the resort.”

At the start of the survey the council tells residents: “We’ve tried to keep as many public services open as possible over the last few years; but the decisions are becoming harder and public-facing services are now being seriously affected by the government’s cuts.

“These are not decisions the council takes lightly as we know what an important part services play in people’s lives.

“We want your view on how our budget can be cut by telling us how you think we should allocate our funding. This is your chance to be in the driving seat and give your opinion.”