A member of the Oldham Council Cabinet which oversaw cuts of £41m in the borough’s budget for 2011/12 has given a detailed insight into how the process worked.
Cllr Brian Lord served in the Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration until last month’s elections, in which Labour took power in Oldham, and Cllr Lord lost his Saddleworth West and Lees seat. However, he retained his place on Saddleworth Parish Council.
In a pre-election interview with Saddleworth News, Cllr Lord described how the Lib Dem/Tory team went about the budget-setting task, and revealed that, in the end, fewer than 100 compulsory redundancies were necessary.
He said: “We spent a good six months putting that budget together.”
Cllr Lord explained: “We started off by asking the officers to come up with cuts, and the direction to them was, these cuts must not affect the frontline services that we provide. Unfortunately, we’ve raided the back office so often, and we’ve made so many cuts to the fabric, that there isn’t that many cuts left to be had. Initially, the officers turned up about a million quid’s worth, which considering at the time we’d assumed it was going to be about £23m we’d need to cut, was of course a joke.”
Council officers were told to come back with more possible cuts, a process which was repeated three times. Cllr Lord said: “It’s not easy, because there’s some very, very difficult decision to be made. But, what we’ve got left, unfortunately, is staff. They are the biggest expense to the council by far, and it’s an area that you simply can’t ignore.”
He continued: “We tried to avoid taking out the grassroots people who are working with people on the frontline. We identified about 800 posts that we felt we could manage without. Some of this was simply not doing things because the council is no longer required to do them, some of it was the fact that we had got vacancies… any that had been empty for a significant length of time, we took those out as well.”
Cllr Lord said older staff were offered early retirement: “We look at those with a view to how much it’s going to cost us, and how soon we can claw back what it does cost us. By and large, we’ve not let anybody go who it’s going to cost us more than a year to pull back the money that we’ve got to pay them as a lump sum to leave. So, within 12 months, even with the worst of them, we’ll be making a saving.”
He added: “When you totted all those together… we are going to be making redundant well under 100 people. There will be probably somewhere in the nineties going to end up losing their jobs. When you set that against Rochdale nextdoor, sacking about 1,500, Manchester on the other side taking out 2,000, Tameside are taking out well over 1,000… I think that shows how well we’ve actually operated the budget.”
The central government funding settlement revealed late last year meant that Oldham Council had to find £41m, rather than the expected £23m, to balance the books for the current financial year.
Cllr Lord explained: “We’ve managed it, and that is no mean feat. We’ve kept our libraries open, and I think we’re the only council in Greater Manchester managing to do that, we’ve kept our swimming pools open, we’ve kept our Sure Start centres open. The things that matter to people we’ve managed to hang on to, and we’ve managed to fund.”
To hear more from Cllr Lord, click on the box below:
During the budget-setting process, the then-opposition Labour group put forward alternative proposals, which largely accepted the Lib Dem/Tory savings, but differed on some areas including the privatisation of aspects of elderly care. The new Labour administration has already revealed plans to reverse that policy, to be paid for by extra savings made in the council’s communications budget, and by cutting layers of management and councillors’ allowances.
Labour will be producing an emergency budget outlining its proposals in full next month. But the savings aren’t over, because the administration must find a further £51m over the coming three years, as the council continues to deal with declining central government funding. Oldham and Rochdale councils last month appointed a joint cross-party committee to examine ways in which the two authorities can work more closely together to save cash.
(Editor’s note: This was part of a long interview with Cllr Lord carried out before the elections. The article I published before polling day focused more on the campaign, but I thought this section was worth highlighting for those who didn’t download the full audio interview at the time. And as I’m currently away on holiday, it was something I could prepare in advance!)