Staff could go in latest cutbacks

North Somerset Council leaders say the authority has a funding gap of more than £17million over the next two years. On Wednesday, councillors released

North Somerset Council leaders say the authority has a funding gap of more than £17million over the next two years.On Wednesday, councillors released their plans for the council in light of the massive financial shortfall it has to deal with.They want to keep annual council tax increases to less than the rate of general inflation and to do this are looking at a raft of proposals including cutting staff across departments and reducing funding for areas such as tourism, sports development and environmental services.Day care service prices are set to increase and community meals could be upped by 10 per cent from £2.60 to £2.85 as of November 30.At the same time the council wants to improve recycling centres, integrate employment, infrastructure and services into all new developments and increase the overall number of new jobs in the region.Councillors have said they will have to make some tough decisions and stop providing some services to keep council tax bills low, even if they are unpopular.They plan to focus on what they have identified as priorities which include older people, vulnerable children, environmental concerns, safer communities, roads and jobs opportunities.The report states: "We want to maintain high achievement levels in school, provide good library services and so on. However, in areas such as these we will be looking to maintain current levels or performance rather than necessarily improve further."Some areas have caused concerns for officers. A warning has been included in the report about children's services that reads: "The scale of economies proposed will change the nature of many of the services and reduce them to a core minimum. There is inherent danger here. If preventative work is stopped, the long-term costs of repairing damage to children and young people is much greater, let alone the costs to the young people themselves."The report concludes: "Everyone should be in no doubt the gap has to be closed and therefore any actions outlined which are viewed as being unpalatable will have to be replaced by others."The Executive will be asked to approve the budget proposals and instruct officers to urgently progress cost cutting actions at its meeting tomorrow (Tues).COUNCIL LEADERS QUIZZEDThese questions were answered by Councillor Nigel Ashton, leader of North Somerset Council, and the authority's director of finance, Phil Hall.(Q) You are looking at all areas to examine where efficiencies and savings can be made. Will you also be looking at councillors' allowances?(A) Nigel Ashton said: "There is a statutory requirement for the finance director to review them every four years and this is completed independently from the councillors. We are just at the beginning of doing this."(A) Phil Hall said: "We have set up an independent panel and the review will take place over autumn and winter and will come back to the council no later than March."(Q) There have been concerns from members of the public over the closure of leisure facilities including the tourist information centre, libraries and The Playhouse over recent weeks. Can you offer them any reassurance? (A) Nigel Ashton said: "They all cost money to run. That is not a scare story. We should review the libraries and the museum. "Of course we are looking at them to tell how much they are used and how much they cost. Nobody wants to close libraries so we have to look and see if we can do things differently."It is too early in the process for many of your questions."(Q) The report says children's' services will be at risk as a result of cuts. How do you aim to reduce this while keeping your statutory responsibilities? (A) Phil Hall said: "There are real risks to services we can work more closely with schools but those are statutory services." (Q) Are there plans to freeze council tax? Is there more money coming from the Government than last year?(A) Nigel Ashton said: "We are determined to keep council tax down and are trying to honour our pledge as people cannot afford to carry paying above inflation increases in their council tax."The council may not decide until February and we are not entirely sure what settlement we will get."(Q) Will any eligibility criteria for services for the elderly change?(A) Nigel Ashton said: "Changing the eligibility of services is one of the last things we want to do."People are living longer and needing care for longer. The cost of care has gone up because of the increase in care standards."(Q) Have the 200 jobs quoted as being at risk been identified? (A) Nigel Ashton said: "At risk is correct. It in no way means all these jobs are going. If you look at certain services all those jobs are 'at risk'. "We have put in a degree of vacancy management so when we did the review we have kept where possible short term contracts and agency staff. We hope to transfer permanent staff into other areas."(A) Phil Hall said: "Given the challenge, we have got to reduce our staffing costs. Compulsory redundancies are not good for the staff and are quite expensive as well." (Q) How are you lobbying for more money from the Government? (A) Nigel Ashton said: "We intend to go to Westminster. Last year people went and were refused."We are using our contacts to get a meeting with some junior ministers to put our case to them and comparing it (the level of funding from central Government) with other local authorities to show that it does not add up."(Q) Will there be any consultation with the public and service users?(A) Nigel Ashton said: "We will be keeping the public informed through the council's own publication, North Somerset Life."(Q) Would North Somerset Council consider handing some responsibilities to Weston Town Council?(A) Nigel Ashton said: "We are going through a review and so we will be looking at how services can be better provided and how we could work with partner agencies such as the NHS.

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