The ruling adminstration of Portsmouth City Council has set out its budget savings proposals for 2016/17 to deliver £11 million of savings in the next financial year, responding directly to priorities identified by just under 2500 respondents to a recent Council consultation, Sarah Cheverton reports.
Some of the key highlights in the budget savings proposals include:
- a proposed increase in council tax of 2% to be decided at Full Council on 9th February 2016
- cuts to the Library and History Service totalling £108,000, resulting in a “requirement for additional volunteers in order to maintain service levels which will otherwise be reduced”
- cuts to community centres across the city totalling £44,000, including in marginalised areas such as Hillside and Wymering, Buckland, and Paulsgrove; and reducing support for functions including marketing and training across all community centres and associations, e.g. in Fratton, and in Stamshaw and Tipner
- increasing income generated via events in the city, including “King George V playing fields, Port Solent and the seafront”
- reductions of £42,00 from sports activities and programmes across the city and from sports facilities maintenance
- loss of jobs in almost every Council service area, at many levels, estimated to result in approximately 100 job cuts – more than a third of which are already vacant. The Council aims for the majority of redundancies to be voluntary, but no details on this are currently available
- Closing down the Hate Crime Prevention Service, eliminating services to support victims of hate crime, other than PCC housing tenants
- reducing the number of specialist anti social behaviour staff dealing with serious anti social behaviour issues for private tenants and owner occupiers
- cuts of £40,000 from Trading Standards, reducing the capacity to investigate and prosecute rogue traders and reducing support for consumers who have been victims of crime
- £88,000 of cuts to services offering support to clients with mental health or a history of substance misuse
- stopping the National Chlamydia Screening Programme and reducing sexual health promotion activity – saving £350,000 – risking an “increase in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections”
- Over £141,000 cuts to substance misuse and alcohol services, resulting in “fewer people with substance misuse and alcohol problems receiv[ing] treatment”
- Ending the Public Health contribution to domestic abuse, cutting the current service team from 13 to 5 members; and cutting specialist housing support for those experiencing domestic abuse
- Cutting funding for trade union officials advocating for service staff in Portsmouth City Council by £75,000
Given the scant context provided in much of the budget savings proposal report – including, e.g. the proportion of the overall service budget represented by each saving, or detailed information on the impact of the saving proposed to end users and other services), without a detailed analysis of each measure from the Council, it is challenging to accurately assess the exact potential impact of many of the proposals.
However, some savings appear to simply shift costs from the Council to another service such as the NHS or local schools. For example, one proposal suggests an increased charge “to schools for the provision of the Free School Meals checking service to reflect increase in volume” and highlights that the impact of the measure if introduced will be that the “Schools Forum will need to agree to an increased charge, which will reduce funding otherwise available to schools.”
Other budget proposals appear to rely on cuts to local authority service provision being picked up by the voluntary and charitable sector in order to protect service provision to some of the most vulnerable people in our local communities. For example, the proposal to reduce services for victims and survivors of domestic abuse relies on the voluntary and charitable sector to ‘pick up’ those victims who will no longer be able to access council services aiming to protect victims and prevent abuse escalating.
One consultation respondent expressed their fear that the wording of questions on domestic abuse in the consultation had given “false information and impressions” as “whilst there are voluntary sector providers they do not have the current capacity or ability to deliver services currently provided by the council.”
This fear seems reasonable, given that the budget savings proposal report includes cuts to support for the voluntary sector that is currently offered by the Council’s Integrated Commissioning Unit, itself the target of significant cuts in the proposals. In addition, services across the country offering support to victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence are closing at an alarming rate as similar cuts take effect across England – a phenomenon repeated across many different service areas nationally and locally.
“We’re releasing our budget proposals today, well in advance of the council meeting [on December 8th], because we want to make sure residents and staff are fully aware of what we’re proposing before any decisions are made.
“No one wants to make cuts to services but in today’s very tough financial climate, we’re faced with extremely difficult decisions.
“Although we have been working hard to make the council more efficient and bring in more income, including £3.5m for the naming rights of the Emirates Spinnaker Tower, some cuts are now unavoidable.
“That’s why we felt it was so important to give local people the chance to tell us what they think about where the savings should come from. I’m pleased that around 2,500 people responded to our survey on council spending and we’re grateful to them, which is a slight increase on last year.
“I’ve looked at every response and, wherever possible, we’ve tried to make proposals in line with the feedback from local people. As a result of the consultation, we will be protecting Meals on Wheels and heating subsidies for older people, and we’ll keep cleaning our roads and the city centre at the same level we do at the moment. We’ll also look for even more ways to bring in additional income, as this option was overwhelmingly popular with local people.”
The 2488 consultation responses guiding the budget break down into two main groups:
- Residents – 1357 responses
- Council staff – 964 responses
The remaining 167 responses came from the Portsmouth Citizen’s Panel, a group of residents who have volunteered to support the Council in making service decisions and shaping the strategic direction of the local authority.
The consultation report states that response rates to this year’s questionnaire have been “excellent, with response rates and participation nudging slightly above last year’s figure”. The report further implies that the data can adequately represent the population of Portsmouth, estimated at 205,100 people in the 2011 Census. It concludes that the findings of the consultation “give statistically robust data from which to influence decisions pertaining to the budgetary approach of Portsmouth City Council.”
The proposals have been released ahead of a full council meeting on 8 December, when they are due to be discussed. Portsmouth City Council has already made £75m of savings over the last five years, and needs to find a further £31m in the three years starting from 2016/17.
With public spending austerity a little over halfway through a 10-year consolidation, the outlook for Portsmouth looks consistent with the national landscape. As the Financial Times recently concluded in relation to austerity, “there is considerable pain to come.”
For a more detailed analysis of the budget, go to Portsmouth Politics on Facebook.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.