Merton Council Plans To Save £44m

Package of cash-saving options put to councillors

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Merton council has unveiled a series of measures which would see it save £44m during the next three years so it cuts its expenditure by 30%.

Council officers have put together a package of "options" to enable the borough to meet its budget gap following cuts in funding from central Government.

Their report includes controversial suggestions such as:

  • Closing libraries
  • Closing Morden Park leisure centre
  • Closing parks
  • Closing paddling pools
  • Closing children's centres
  • Ceasing to lock parks at night
  • Reintroducing charges for bulky waste collection
  • Ending weekly street sweeping
  • Ending the existing CCTV service.

The proposed options, which were unveiled to the council's Cabinet on Monday (October 17), also entail more than 200 job losses between 2012 and 2015.

The Cabinet of the Labour-run council is recommending a council tax freeze for 2012-13, but subsequent years will be looked at in turn.

The 377-page report will go through two cycles of scrutiny in November to give opposition councillors chance to analyse the options and come up with alternative proposals. The Cabinet will agree the business plan by February 20 in time for the final full council budget-setting meeting on March 7.

Council leader Stephen AlambritisCouncil leader Stephen Alambritis (left) said the Cabinet was not supporting the ten controversial options listed above. He said they were "unpalatable".

"These are unprecedented times for local government and for Merton. Our government grant has been cut significantly and we need to make almost £70m worth of savings over the four years of this administration.

"Although it was very difficult, we managed to make more than £24m worth of savings last year. This leaves us with £44m of savings still to find.

"Essential services will be protected, we will fulfill our legal requirements and we will look after children, the elderly and the vulnerable. Then we will take it from there. These are difficult times and we will get through them in a way which respects those who need our help", he said.

The list of saving options follows a full spending review by council officers and includes getting better deals on contracts and making services more efficient.

The options also include the closure of Canons House Adult Education Centre in Mitcham; the closure of evening youth clubs; increased allotment fees; the introduction of parking meters at three parks; the closure of bowling greens or transfer to self-management; and the reduction of the Polka Theatre's grant by £13,500 (43%) over three years.

Councillor Alambritis added: "We are currently challenging and reviewing everything the council does to ensure we provide value for money. Unfortunately the size of the budget gap means we cannot fix the problem by efficiencies alone and we will need to make more difficult decisions".

With the October publication of this report, there would now be chance for councillors to work together on the budget, he added. "Residents want to see councillors working together, this is not time for party politics," he said.

Conservative group leader, Debbie ShearsConservative group leader, Debbie Shears (left), said they had immediate concerns about options involving reducing waste collection and street cleaning.

She said: "Conservative councillors, along with residents, fully understand the state of the country's finances left by the last Labour Government and everyone has a role to play in reducing our country's debt.  

"However, we want to see the Council prioritise options which deliver better value for money through increasing efficiency in the Council's back office rather than cutting the frontline services on which so many residents rely. As such, we have immediate concerns about proposals to reduce waste collection and street cleaning. The proposals also appear to target activities greatly valued by the young and old in our borough such as youth services and the bowling greens.

"This is the first time we have seen the budget proposals which Labour have been considering for weeks. Merton Conservative group will of course consider these proposals carefully, and will talk to our residents about the plans. We will be playing our full part in the budget scrutiny process."

Councillor Peter SouthgateCouncillor Peter Southgate (left), one of three Merton Park Ward Independant Resident councillors, said: "As Chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, I welcome the undertaking of all political groups to work through the scrutiny process for a budget that represents the best outcome for the residents of Merton, while recognising the need to achieve savings of nearly £16m.

"From the options put forward by officers, the Cabinet has signalled the savings it does not want to make, and it's hard to imagine that members will disagree with its choices. But there may be other cuts that Cabinet has not vetoed, yet which prove unacceptable. Now it's for members to scrutinise the other proposed savings in detail, and nominate alternatives to those they find unacceptable until we reach an optimised budget."

Conservative councillors, Samantha George and Gilli Lewis-Lavender, were unhappy that library closures were included in the report's options after a campaign last year against the reduction in opening hours at West Barnes and Colliers Wood libraries. The report includes options to close both libraries.

Councillor Lewis-Lavender said: "I can't believe the Labour administration would do this to all the residents and volunteers in West Barnes. Everyone has worked so hard to keep our library open full time after Labour's enforced one day a week closure last year. This is a real kick in the teeth to all those helpers."

Councillor George, Conservative Community and Culture Spokesman, added: "We were assured last year that the one day a week library closures were not just the thin end of the wedge. Clearly however they are."

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October 19, 2011