Merton Sets Cash-Saving Budget

But opponents win some concessions

Merton council has agreed much of its controversial budget, which will see it save around £44m during the next three years.

But critics won a number of concessions from the Labour administration when the budget was set on Wednesday (March 7).

The council, which is freezing council tax again, says it needs to make the savings because of a 26% cut in government funding.

The savings include a freeze on spending on external providers to adult social care services, but proposed youth service cuts will not be made.

Other concessions include the restoration of 20 minutes' free parking in parts of Wimbledon Village and Wimbledon Park.

Council leader Stephen Alambritis (left) said: "Labour has taken a business-like approach to this huge challenge and has managed to protect services due to good financial management.

"Labour has focused on making the council more efficient, getting a better deal from suppliers and sharing services with other boroughs to reduce costs. This good financial management has helped protect Merton from some of the massive cuts seen in other councils.

"Unlike many other councils, Merton will not be closing libraries. Labour will not be making cuts to youth services. Labour will not be closing leisure centres. Merton will not be closing children's centres. Merton will not be ending the weekly street sweep or charging for bulky waste. Merton will not be ending the council's CCTV service."

But the leaders of the Conservative and Lib Dem parties have acccused Labour of trying to save up a 'war-chest' in advance of the 2014 election.

Conservative leader Debbie Shears (left) said: "Fees have gone up, services have gone down and £40 million is being stashed away by Labour (in reserves). This is the essence of the Budget this year.

"There are undoubtedly greater efficiencies that this Council should and could make to reduce the demand on the public purse but Labour don't really want to do that. Instead they are happy to hoard millions of pounds of tax payers' money.

"Looking at the papers today, we see that not only has next year's budget been balanced with the £12million surplus generated this year, but the following year too through further under spends and additional charges that are forecast, such as the new garden waste charge, the introduction of the Hartfield Road bus lane and increased parking charges. We've seen no clear explanation as to why these huge reserves are being built up."

Lib Dem leader Iain Dysart (left) said: "We are pleased that councillors agreed with us that it made good sense to restore 20 minutes of free parking at shopping parades in Wimbledon Park and Wimbledon Village. Removing this provision at a time when many local businesses were already struggling was counter-productive.

"This Lib Dem amendment will ensure that the council helps to support local shoppers and businesses during these difficult economic times.

"It is disappointing, however, that the council did not agree with other Lib Dem budget amendments intended to use just a small part of the borough's substantial reserves to protect voluntary sector organisations and transport services for the elderly and disabled from cuts.

"That the Labour administration have chosen to make these cuts despite available reserves highlights their real agenda: building up a substantial reserve of cash in order to fund a pre-election give-away in 2014. That is indefensible, and the Liberal Democrats oppose it".

A Conservative amendment calling for fuller scrutiny of the council's capital programme as well as the requirement for capital expenditure items of more than £250,000 to be approved by full council was passed through.

Among the areas given a reprieve was funding to Deen City Farm,  the Attic Theatre, the Polka Theatre and Merton's Little League Football.

Councillor Henry Nelless, a Deen City Farm trustee, presented a petition with more than 2,000 signatures to the council. He said afterwards: "Labour's last minute U-turn is welcome but it is ridiculous that it was ever proposed.

"A small cut of £15,000 makes a big difference to the Farm but is completely unnecessary when the Council has under spent by £12million last year. They should think again before coming up with any equally ridiculous proposals in the future."

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March 9, 2012