Ministers have accused North East councils of sitting on unused land and property which they could sell to protect services.
But local authorities facing massive spending cuts of more than £240 million ridiculed the claims – and pointed out that there are strict rules preventing them from selling the land to fund services.
And the comments provoked an angry reaction from Labour, who accused the Government of imposing higher cuts on urban councils in the North East than wealthy parts of the country.
Ministers launched the attack on councils which are reducing services and raising council tax, claiming that they had nobody to blame but themselves.
The Association of North East Councils has warned that crucial services such as care for vulnerable children are in danger of collapse as massive cuts in council funding wipe almost quarter of a billion pounds off budgets across the North East this year.
It says the true impact of Government spending cuts has been hidden because authorities have succeeded in “raiding” other services and diverting funds where they are needed most – but they have reached a point where this just won’t be possible any more.
But Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles issued a statement claiming councils have large sources of untapped revenue including money held in reserve, assets such as property or land, and council tax arrears which have gone uncollected.
And his department published a league table highlighting the worst offenders, with County Durham named as one of the authorities with high levels of surplus assets. The authority is sitting on assets worth £62 million, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
The department also named Gateshead as an authority with high levels of surplus assets, worth £49 million.
Government figures also showed that Northumberland council had reserves of £96.4 million while Newcastle-upon-Tyne had reserves of £78.9 million.
Mr Pickles said:
“Reserves have rocketed up in the past few years and councils could be making better use of assets to keep taxes down and protect frontline services, while at the same time doing more to stop the billions they are losing to fraud and collecting more Council Tax arrears.”
But the claims were dismissed by Councillor Alan Napier, Deputy Leader of Durham County Council, who said:
“We do have surplus assets of £62 million which includes both land and buildings, including former school sites.
“Most of these sites are either being sold, up for sale or in the process of being put up for sale. When sold, our hands are tied as to what we can spend the money on as the receipts are ring-fenced and can only be spent on new capital items such as buildings, vehicles or infrastructure.
“I would have expected Mr Pickles to know that receipts from surplus assets cannot be used to reduce council tax or protect front line services ”
Gateshead Council’s strategic director of corporate services and governance, Mike Barker, said
“£41m illion of assets which have been classed as ‘surplus to requirements’ actually relate to land which has already been contractually committed towards building much needed, good quality, affordable housing across the borough.
“The development of this land is already underway on sites at Deckham, Bensham and Saltwell, and Birtley. Over the next 15 years, the joint venture partnership between ourselves, Galliford Try and Home Group will build thousands of new homes on 19 different sites across Gateshead; bringing jobs, investment, and regeneration to many areas.”
The devastating impact of Government cuts on council services was confirmed in a report by the National Audit Office late last year, which warned that authorities were reaching a point where they couldn’t cope.
“While local authorities have maintained financial resilience overall, some – particularly among metropolitan districts – are now showing persistent signs of financial stress, such as unplanned in-year reductions in service spend.
“Looking to the future, there is increased uncertainty about how local authorities can manage further possible falls in income.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 11 Feb 2015
Plans are being floated by Gateshead Council to close all but five of its facilities as it attempts to slash £46m from its budget over the next two years.
The dramatic proposal forms part of a public consultation which will run until November 15 on the future of Gateshead’s £3.2m service.
Previous budget cuts have already seen the council handing over five libraries to volunteer run organisations.
Among the seven options presented to the public in its latest consultation is a plan to keep open only Gateshead Central Library, Blaydon, Birtley, Leam Lane and Whickham libraries with support from the Readers at Home Service and Mobile Library.
This would save the council £400,000 a year and scrap the equivalent of 13 full time jobs.
Another idea is for the council to run the same five libraries with the option of adding a number of ‘prioritised’ local libraries to its network.
Local libraries they could chose to save include those at Chopwell, Crawcrook, Dunston, Felling, Pelaw, Rowlands Gill and Wrekenton, which each cost the council £60,353 a year to run.
This plan would also be supported by the Mobile Library service, however another option suggests scrapping this facility entirely, as well as the Readers at Home and the Audio Visual service saving the council £178,000 a year with the loss of up to seven full-time equivalent posts.
Gateshead Council’s Service Director, Culture Communities and Volunteering, Lindsay Murray, said:
“The Council is undertaking a review of its library service to ensure that it is fit for the future and meets the changing needs of Gateshead residents and changes in technology.
“Gateshead Council has a funding gap of £46 million over the next two years – this review aims to help us design a service that can withstand future financial pressures.
“A series of options have been developed to help us best meet the needs of local communities and the changes in how residents are accessing the library service.
“We want to know what people think about the proposed options and we would like to encourage as many people as possible to give us their views.”
Option 3 presented by the council outlines the potential to expand its volunteer run library network, which currently includes those at Ryton, Winlaton, Sunderland Road, Low Fell and Lobley Hill libraries, which were established in July 2013.
To have your say on proposals visit Gateshead Central Library on Monday November 3 between 4pm – 6pm and Wednesday November 5 between 10am – 12 noon.
Sessions are also being held in all other council run libraries and the five volunteer run facilities up until November 10. For more details visit the ‘Consultations’ page on Gateshead Council’s website.
Source – Newcastle Evening Gazette, 28 Oct 2014
Plans have been drawn up to build a £1million accommodation block for firefighters on 24 hour shifts as part of cost-saving measures.
Rainton Bridge Fire Station is to lose 16 firefighters as Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service looks to save £8million in the face of Government cuts.
A total of 131 posts will go as the service trims £5million from its frontline budget.
A new 24-hour shift pattern has been introduced at Rainton Bridge with crews staying in a purpose-built block while on call.
Officers who did not sign up to the new shift pattern have moved to other stations, but will not be replaced when they leave.
The shift pattern is expected to save £500,000 a year and the Houghton station was chosen because it has the lowest number of call outs.
Firefighters were called out 1,447 times in the last three years compared to 4,055 for Sunderland Central, 2,415 for North Moor, 2,033 for Fulwell and 2,492 for Washington.
But union bosses slammed it as “a return to Victorian work practices” and claimed it will not provide the same standard of service.
The Fire Brigade’s Union (FBU) also said it would have long-term impact on finances, as firefighters on the new shift earn 23 per cent more, which means their pension contributions must also rise.
Dave Turner, brigade secretary for the FBU, said: “We rigorously oppose this duty system and believe it is a return to Victorian working practices because they are expected to be on duty for 90 hours a week.
“We don’t believe that is appropriate in this day and age and it also puts an added pressure on our pension scheme.”
The 12 officers who have agreed to the new approach will work with bosses to decide what periods of time they will live on base for, but will still complete 182 shifts during the year.
The block, which is expected to be completed by spring, has been designed so family members can visit.
> Wow ! Just like prison…
A similar scheme is in operation in Birtley and County Durham Fire and Rescue Service run one in Seaham.
A planning application for the Mercantile Road station has been submitted by Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service Authority to Sunderland City Council, and if the £1.048million two-storey extension is approved, it is expected to save £500,000 a year through the new shift pattern.
The building project is being funded by Government cash, with the service to make up any shortfall from reserves.
Assistant fire chief officer Chris Lowther said: “From the public’s point of view, they will still get what they got yesterday, which is a fire appliance which is available 24 hours a day and the same number of people will attend at the same time.
“What the fire authority get from it going through is a significant budget reduction.”
The FBU believe the approach is a “return to Victorian working practises” and dispute fire chiefs’ claims the same standard of service will be provided.
Source – Sunderland Echo, 31 July 2014