Merton Council Cash-Saving Budget Is Passed

Series of opposition amendments are turned down

Merton Council's controversial budget, saving £24 million, was passed at a meeting which ended at 11.15pm on Wednesday (March 2).

The full budget was approved by 31 votes to 28 votes with the Merton Park Ward Independent Residents voting with the ruling Labour administration and the Lib-Dems backing the Conservative opposition on some of the amendments.

The services affected by the cuts will include:

  • Deen City Farm, which will have a £15,000 grant cut in 2011/12
  • Weir Road recycling centre, which will be closed to save £175,000
  • Reducing street cleaning, saving £285,000
  • Brightwell children's respite centre, which will have a £70,000 funding cut
  • Merton Music Foundation, which will have a £26,000 grant cut in 2011/12
  • Stopping garden waste collection, saving £227,000
  • Restructuring school standards, with 11 posts being reduced, saving £121,000
  • Restructuring the park services team, saving £350,000.

The meeting rejected nine amendments put forward by the Conservative opposition, which they said would have largely been funded from an underspend of around £10 million in the 2010-11 budget.

There were still a number of amendments to the original list of savings. Those changes included:

  • Carrying on locking the parks at night while savings options are explored. This would have saved £57,000
  • Allowing the current opening hours of Donald Hope and West Barnes Libraries to remain for an extra three months to enable local groups to organise volunteers so they won't shut for an extra day each week
  • A proposal to save £45,000 by reducing the frequency of community forums was amended to a decision to reorganise the forums, with the onus on councillors organising them.
  • Instead of removing 20 minutes free parking in some bays (saving £60,000), reducing it to 10 minutes of free parking
  • Cuts to the discretionary Freedom Pass for the mentally ill will be £70,000 and not £100,000
  • A delay of three months to the closure of Taylor Road Day Centre in Colliers Wood to enable alternatives to be established.

Council Leader, Councillor Stephen AlambritisCouncil Leader, Councillor Stephen Alambritis (left), said at the meeting: "The money the government is giving Merton Council in formula grant is reducing by over 13 per cent. We are also losing millions in other grants. By the time the local government financial settlement was calculated in full our budget gap had increased to over £26million.

"We have done our best to bridge the gap fairly and in a balanced manner. And in that spirit we have done the following:

"Corporate Services including the Chief Executives Department is facing cuts of 27 per cent to its net budget. Environmental Services is losing 15% of its net budget but also getting an extra £1.5 million.

"And here is where our values are embedded in this budget: Community and Housing including Social Services is losing just over 7% when the original position looked far, far worse.

"And Children, Schools and Families is losing just 3% but with an extra £1million going into Children’s Social Services. So we are protecting the young, the elderly and the voluntary sector.

"But even savings in our back office aren’t without pain. Jobs will be lost as a result and I deeply regret that."

Conservative Councillor Debbie ShearsOpposition leader, Conservative Councillor Debbie Shears (left), told the meeting: "This has been another top-slicing budget with no strategic vision from the leader of the council as to where Merton is going to continue to make savings over the next three years.

"No effort has been made to protect front line services and focus on driving through savings in back office functions. We will continue to highlight the damage this budget will do to residents if agreed."

The amendments put forward by the Conservatives, which were rejected by the meeting, ncluded introducing remote locking for 18 parks; introducing additional 20 minute parking bays; not to cut funding to the Brightwell respite centre, Merton Music Foundation and Deen City Farm and the two libraries; commercialising the green waste collection; keeping the Weir Road centre open and not reducing street cleaning and parks services, but reconfiguring them; not to lose 11 posts from the school standards team.

Councillor Shears said after the meeting: "We made sure our recommendations were fully costed. We would have liked to have seen a strategy in the budget. This is going to be an on-going issue over the next few years".

Anthony FaircloughAnthony Fairclough (left), secretary of Merton Liberal Democrats, added: "I found it frankly extraordinary that Labour and Residents Association councillors would not consider using a small part of the money that hasn't been spent this year - the 'budget underspend' - to mitigate the cuts they are making to vital services.

"I was proud that Lib Dem councillors voted to use some of this money to protect cash for Deen City Farm, to keep the Weir Road Recycling centre open and ensure false economies are not made by cutting funds for street cleaning and green waste collection."

But Councillor Alambritis said afterwards: "Making these decisions was not easy. We have also listened and acted on a number of concerns raised throughout this budget process and as a result have amended initial savings about libraries, the borough’s parks and clarified arrangements for the community forums."

Councillor Peter SouthgateCouncillor Peter Southgate (left), from the Merton Park Ward Independent Residents, said: "The quality of thought in the amendments put forward by the Conservatives was good. But they cost £1.68 million. At present we face a deficit of £20m in the next year. The effect would be increase that to more than £21 million.

"It is not just setting the budget for next year. It is thinking about the budget going on and we can't just patch it up. It wouldn't be responsible to just delay decisions for another year."

He said that while the council received £77 million in the formula grant from the Government in 2010-11, this will be reduced to £67 million next year, and then in subsequent years as follows - £60 million in 2012/13; £54 million in 2013/14; £47 million in 2014/15.

And he added that the £9.7 million "underspend" from the 2010-11 budget was allocated, with £4.275 million going to capital provision and £4.245 million to reduce the 2011/12 budget deficit. This leaves a balance of £1.76 million towards offsetting the deficit for 2012/13.

But Ben Cheetham, project manager of Deen City Farm, said he was now worried about the survival of the popular facility, which attracts around 30,000 annual visitors.

He said: "There are tough times everywhere, but over the last 15 years our grant hasn't gone up, so we are surviving now on what we got then. If the cuts go ahead year-on-year, in two years' time I can't see the farm being there".

And Keith Spears, chair of the Colliers Wood Residents' Association, added: "I am seriously concerned that our public services are being cut back at a time when we need them more than ever. They are, what I call, the "Commonwealth of Colliers Wood" - the parks and outdoor spaces, libraries and community centres where we come together to share common interests and forge a sense of community. This is what the "Big Society" is about but, ironically, these are the services that are being cut. As a community we need to get organised and protect them before we lose them all."

  • The council will be investing more than £65 million during 2011/2012 in improved services and the borough’s built environment. This includes refurbishing Wimbledon Park Water Sports Centre and giving a face lift to Wimbledon town centre. The council will also receive a separate grant of £8.6 million for its schools, which will be used to increase the number of school places in the borough. This grant will go towards the £40m cost of expanding local schools over the coming few years.

What do you think about the cuts? Why not comment on our forum?

March 4, 2011