'Bleak' cuts to services across Hampshire condemned in 'pathetic' public consultation
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Hampshire County Council (HCC) is expected to face a budget gap of £132 million by 2025/26. For that reason, the council needs to plan two years ahead to avoid issuing a section 114 – effectively declaring bankruptcy.
By doing so, a savings program has been developed to save £90 million from different areas of all directorates. This included the potential loss of school crossing patrols, the turning off of street lights, increased parking charges, reduction of services and grants or freezing on highway maintenance.
The package was approved during full council in which the Conservative party and its local leader Councillor Rob Humby were heavily criticised by opposition groups.
Leader of the Lib Dem group Cllr Keith House said that the current situation is “bleak” and will be “worse” in the upcoming years unless “something radically changes”. He said, from his point of view, the saving proposals are “savage” and won’t be enough since £71 million still needs to be found.
Cllr House said: “The current situation is really bleak, and it is getting worse. We’ve been through this loop many times, and the story hasn’t changed.
“The proposals here do rely on another £57 million to be taken from reserves with an ongoing gap of £42 million each year even before looking at what demographic trend suggests we’ll be even further and deeper cuts if we get to the position of having this debate again in two years.
“The reality, of course, is this won’t be possible by then. The scale of unachieved savings and new pressures would have tipped us over the edge, just as it’s happened in Birmingham, Slough, Woking, and Croydon. This is not speculation. This is a fact. This is a national local government crisis across the entire country and could include some of our neighbours like Southampton.”
The Lib Dem leader refers to the Autumn Statement, due by the end of November, as a “little sticking plaster” that “can’t do anything other than kick the local government finance can down the road just as it has done for the last two years.”
However, he reduced the tension by saying that the economic situation was “not entirely” Cllr Humby’s fault as he “at least” did “some of the things we have repeatedly called for year after year and asked you to do, lobbying the government”.
The leader of the Lib Dem said the savings proposal won’t change the deficit and residents will lose services, “all for the chop”.
He added: “I’ll give that a B minus for now, and we’ll come back and see how we progress over the next six months. Abandoning the salami slicing of local services to start at least looking at priorities that matter the most has now begun to happen.”
For its part, Labour leader Cllr Alex Crawford, who again mentioned the Autumn statement, said that the waiting leaves the council “in limbo”.
Cllr Crawford said: “Where will the council find the money for spending in 2025/26? Is the council really approaching that tipping point, going over the cliff edge and unable to meet the legal duty to balance the budget?”
About the public consultation, he called it “pathetic”, “biased”, and “over-complicated” for residents.
Cllr Crawford added: “The budget consultation remained too centralised and was over-complicated […] So the Council had difficulties getting responses, fewer than 3,000 out of a population of 1.4 million. Pathetic.
“The 795 pages for this item suffer from what is generally known as GIGO, garbage in, garbage out.
“There’s some scrutiny required to determine if these sorts of biases distorted the results to such an extent that we have no confidence in the recommendations based on them.”
Although the leader of the Independent group councillor Andy Tree welcomed the consultation and endorsed what Cllr Crawford said, his group found it unacceptable for the most vulnerable residents in Hampshire.
Cllr Tree said: “We recognise the thankless task the administration has and have no doubt in their integrity in wanting to do their best for Hampshire residents.
“The choices are bleak. Cuts or potentially end up with statutory services, which is an even greater cut, and one way or the other, you’re harming residents—a horrific position to be in.
“To be fair, the administration has opted to strive to balance the books in the least destructive way possible and starve off effective bankruptcy for at least the immediate years ahead.
“Regardless of how well intended this plan is, it will surely harm our most vulnerable and lower-paid residents, and that is not acceptable.”
Starting in early January 2024, a second public consultation will take place on certain proposals following a decision by the full council. Final decisions will then be made by individual cabinet councillors later next year.