Oldham Council has published its final set of budget proposals for the coming financial year. Featuring £41m of savings, the plans will go before a council meeting for approval next Wednesday.
The Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration which controls the council has found some extra funding in recent days and weeks. In a statement, the council said the cash would be used to “soften the impact” of the cuts.
Among the items now included in the proposed budget are a £200,000 fund to help the voluntary sector, £120,000 of cash for local carers, £105,000 to keep school crossing patrols at their current levels for the time being, and £75,000 for a ‘mystery shopper’ type scheme to monitor the quality of private sector care, where that is replacing existing council-run services.
The administration has also accepted £575,000 of new savings suggested in the Labour group’s alternative budget plans. Those include reductions in spending on external printing, training, recruitment advertising, food, drinks, travel and accommodation.
Speaking in his office at Oldham Civic Centre today, the Lib Dem leader of Oldham Council, Cllr Howard Sykes, said he’d taken on board ideas from the public, staff, and opposition politicians alike. He said: “I’m not proud. I’ve always said if someone has a good idea, I’ll steal it.”
He said the process of identifying the £41m had been, in his view, “as good as if not better than elsewhere in Greater Manchester.” Cllr Sykes pointed to innovations such as the budget simulator on the council’s website, as well as more traditional consultation methods, which have been taking place around the borough over the past few months.
He added: “When people say ‘have you looked under every stone?’ I’d argue we’ve looked under the little pebbles.” Cllr Sykes added that much of the budget had already gone before the council in December, while other nearby councils have left it much later to make announcements about cutbacks.
The administration’s plans include outsourcing care in the home for pensioners and respite help for their carers to the private and voluntary sectors, in an attempt to save more than £1.5m. Cllr Sykes said he was satisfied the private sector would be able to deliver those services at an acceptable quality.
He said: “I am or I wouldn’t do it. I’m as sure as I can be that’s one of the more mature markets. In some other areas, the private and voluntary sectors just aren’t mature enough.”
However, Cllr Sykes stressed the value of the proposed new ‘mystery shopper’ scheme in checking that companies are delivering the services promised: “What we’ve said is, where we’ve got some extra money, let’s be sure.”
Cllr Sykes also praised the work of carers, who he described as the “unsung heroes” of the borough. He said the £120,000 fund would be used to, for example, help carers pay for items such as new washing machines, if they’ve been worn out through being used more often: “They do a lot… having that fund to me was an easy choice if we could find the money to do it.”
He also signalled that, although school crossings will be kept at current levels for the time being, in future the council would like to see volunteers take over the service. Cllr Sykes said he believed there were people in local communities who would be prepared to do it for nothing, adding: “Is it not a parent’s job to get a child safely to school? Ideally in walking buses, rather than having more cars going in and out of schools.”
The council is having to make £41m of savings because of a reduction in grants from central government. Up to 800 jobs are expected to go at the authority.
Also today, the leader of the opposition Labour group Cllr Jim McMahon wrote to backbench Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, urging them to back his alternative budget next Wednesday. The main area of difference between the two sides is the proposal to outsource most care for the elderly to the private sector, which Labour disagrees with.
He wrote: “I believe some of the cuts being proposed will damage our borough and will be extremely difficult to reverse once council approves them.” You can read the letter in full here.
The council’s statement can be read here.
(Editor’s note: I’ll publish more from the interview with Cllr Sykes tomorrow, including his thoughts on the settlement from the government, and how some other Greater Manchester councils have approached the process of making savings)