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Facing the cuts: Somerset services
Facing the Cuts logo

By Martin Jones
BBC Somerset

Councils in Somerset and across the UK are bracing themselves to make big cuts in public spending.

With the government £178bn in debt, it is inevitable local authorities will receive significantly less money from them in future.

No-one knows how much less they will get, but estimates range from 5% to 20% less, and councils will be forced to reduce their spending accordingly.

The question is where the cuts will come, and which services will be hit.

Education and the NHS are highly sensitive areas and no minister wants to announce they are closing hospitals or making teachers redundant.

So, the services provided by local councils are seen as an easier way to make savings.

Research suggests the public ranks areas such as arts funding, leisure services, voluntary organisations and tackling homelessness near the bottom of their list of priorities.

The BBC has looked into the future of public spending, and into how councils will manage the inevitable reductions in funding.

Both Somerset County Council and Bath and North East Somerset council declined to respond to a detailed BBC survey into their future intentions, but the budgets passed by both in February give a good indication of their plans.

Somerset County Council

The Conservatives won overall control of Somerset County Council in 2009, partly on a promise to freeze its share of council tax.

This year, they announced a 0% council tax increase as promised. But, it came at the cost of £40m less spending. That includes:

• A reduction of 138 staff posts, of which around 50 are redundancies

• Giving companies who provide care for the elderly and learning disabled a lower-than-expected funding increase, effectively reducing the amount they are paid by £2.4m

• Saving £3.5m on the council's contract with road maintenance firm Atkins

• Shelving building plans for a new library at Castle Cary, a proposed extension to the Park and Ride at Silk Mills in Taunton and new buildings for a Pupil Referral Unit in Yeovil

• Dozens of smaller cuts, including saving on crime reduction projects, holiday activities for youngsters and subsidised bus services.

Tory leader Ken Maddock claims many of the spending reductions are efficiency savings and that he is getting the same service for less money, for example on the roads contract.

Where there are cuts, he echoes the shadow chancellor George Osborne in arguing we are "all in it together" and everyone must share the pain of getting the council's finances in order.

But opposition Lib Dem leader Jill Shortland says the public will feel the cuts. She said: "The general public want to think in the short-term that they are saving money. But when they see the long-term consequences of this, they will realise that the few pennies and few pounds they have saved on council tax weren't worth it."

Somerset County Council did not respond to the BBC's Facing the Cuts survey, saying the survey asked for predictions for the next three years and that it had only set a budget for the coming year.

Bath and North East Somerset Council

The situation in Bath and North East Somerset (BANES), also run by the Tories, is more complicated.

On one hand, the council is restructuring itself to make sure its long-term costs are lower. For example, it is likely to make 76 redundancies in its environmental services department.

It will also review the way it funds and runs youth clubs in the area, and wants to move from a "universal" to a "targeted" provision. This means providing youth services only for vulnerable youngsters, rather than for all.

The Tory cabinet member for youth services, Chris Watt, told BBC Somerset he foresees the council funding fewer youth clubs, and encouraging charities to run them instead.

Yet on the other hand, it has found money for many one-off spending projects.

These range from the large, such as spending £3m on affordable housing, through spending £800,000 to introduce new food waste collections, down to £150,000 to regenerate areas such as Norton and Radstock.

The money for these projects has come partly from funds set aside to settle legal disputes arising from the Bath Spa saga. Now the issue has been settled, the council is able to spend the money instead.

So, Bath and North East Somerset has not yet presented a true "austerity budget", but it admits it needs to save 5% in each of the next three years.

BANES also declined to answer the BBC's Facing The Cuts survey. A spokesman said the authority would want to "manage and consult" with staff before identifying areas vulnerable to cuts.

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