Further to the meeting of the Council held on 20 November 2013 and following a six week consultation period the Mayor presented a statement on his final budget recommendations which would be reflected in the budget to be proposed to Council at its meeting to be held on 3 March 2014.
As previously stated the severe cuts were in response to the Government's drive to reduce public sector spending with Middlesbrough required to achieve total budget reductions of more than £67 million over the next three years.
It was expected that although recent Government announcements were still being analysed the level of cuts required for 2014/2015 were not likely to increase beyond £22 million and as a result of a number of mitigating actions, the Mayor considered that such a gap could be reduced to £15 million. It was explained that given the uncertainty of the economic climate and future direction of the Government all of the mitigation measures to be implemented to reduce the financial gap for 2015/2016 through to 2019/2020 could not be reported at this stage.
The statement included an indication of the financial challenges facing the Council and gave details of savings achieved of almost £50 million, including the Working Neighbourhoods Fund since 2011.
The Mayor reaffirmed the budget proposals for 2014/2015 as outlined in the statement with the exception of certain modifications and the withdrawal of item 14 in respect of funding provided to Community Councils and the withdrawal of item 39 in respect of reducing Trade Union facility time.
As part of the proposals, services in a number of areas which included environment, leisure and social care would be reduced, delivered differently or closed, including the creation of a new enforcement service through the merger of Wardens, Parking Enforcement Officers and Neighbourhood Enforcement teams. Facilities earmarked for closure included Clairville Stadium, the Middlesbrough Teaching and Learning Centre, the TAD Centre and the Register Office.
Changes included reductions in grass cutting, grounds maintenance and litter picking, reductions in leisure centre opening hours and staffing levels and the contracting out of a number of services. The Mayor explained that 'contracting out' did not mean 'privatisation' but would be pursued if it was in the Council's best interests to be delivered externally. In such circumstances the Council would maintain strategic responsibility for such services and the practice of 'zero hours' contracts would not be permitted.
The Mayor indicated that in pursuing budget proposals he had been very mindful to protect front-line services and to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable would still be met. A constant theme had been to reduce the number of job losses and where possible, change working practices, examine the priorities and create greater effectiveness and efficiency. Whilst the budget proposals assumed the deletion of 300 posts and the transfer of approximately 300 staff to other organisations it was considered that the deletion of posts could be achieved largely without the need for compulsory redundancies mainly as a result of Early Retirement Voluntary Redundancy.
Changes to the proposals made at the Council meeting held on 20 November 2013 included an increase in the funding for Community Councils from £500 to £750 per year, and the withdrawal of a proposal to reduce Trade Union facility time.
Further details were provided on a major proposal to save more than £7 million by making greater use of IT and automated processes, and making efficiencies in 'back office' services, with savings to be found in a number of areas including administrative support, finance, HR and legal services. In shaping the future of the Council there needed to be collaborative partnership with the Trade Unions as well as other partner organisations. It was considered that Trade Union representatives would require more time to engage their members and Council officials and therefore it was not considered appropriate to reduce Trade Union facility time.
During the budget process for 2013/2014 three particular initiatives had been proposed concerning terms and conditions which had been the subject of protracted negotiations. The Mayor stated that he believed that the arguments advanced by the Trade Unions to abandon the recommendations to change staff terms and conditions in relation to moving all Council staff to plain time rates of pay; removing all essential car user allowances; and introducing charges for staff car parking had been met and the recommendations withdrawn.
The Mayor extended thanks to those who had contributed to the consultation and to the feedback which had assisted greatly in reassessing the original proposals.
It was stressed that inevitably there would be much change and a reduction in services and a change in the urban environment.
Members' attention was drawn to the subject of Council Tax although it was acknowledged that the final proposals in respect of the Council Tax referendum had yet to be announced by the Government and it would be the subject of further debate by Members over the coming weeks. The Mayor stated that it was his belief that the Council Tax should be increased up to 2% for the 2014/2015 financial year which would mean an increase of no more than 34 pence per week for a Band A property.
Members concurred with the Mayor's sentiments with particular regard to the level of Council Tax and the withdrawal of the original proposals in relation to Trade Union's facility time.
With reference to the proposal to contract out Fleet Management and Vehicle Maintenance Services to an external provider the Mayor acknowledged the suggestion made to pursue discussions with a view to providing mutual assistance with other local public sector organisations which had a fleet of suitable vehicles.
In terms of the proposal to halve the frequency of litter picking and street cleansing Members agreed to the importance of reinforcing the message of the public's responsibility in not exacerbating the problems in this regard.
It was confirmed that the current contractual arrangements would need to be examined in relation to a Members' suggestion that the basis on which a peppercorn rent applied be reviewed.
The Mayor agreed that further information would be provided with regard to clarification sought from Members as to how confident it was considered that savings could be achieved in relation to the re-negotiation of joint management costs with Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust and to secure alternative funding from Middlesbrough Intermediate Care Centre.