Libraries and social services under threat in new £80m spending cuts drive

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Hampshire County Council
Hampshire County Council’s HQ in Winchester

LIBRARY closures, reduced winter gritting and increased service charges are being considered by Hampshire County Council to plug a looming £80m hole in its finances.

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The Conservative-run authority said shrinking government funding and growing demand has forced it yet again to scale back its budget by April 2021 – having already made cuts and savings worth about £480m since 2008.

A public consultation launched on Wednesday set out an array of options being considered for departments across the council, whose annual service spending is around £2bn, not including capital projects.

As reported in the A&T, over the years of national austerity Hampshire children’s centres have been closed, new fees introduced at waste centres, and streetlights dimmed at night.

The latest suggestions include shutting libraries and increasing reliance on volunteers, adding fees for parking at country parks, turning off streetlights for longer, and extending charges for non-household waste at recycling centres.

Adult and children’s care is also under the spotlight, with the potential for more youngsters and older people to be kept “safely” at home instead of going into care, and greater use of technology to cut costs.

About £500,000 could be saved from the £17.4m highways maintenance budget by reducing priority winter gritting routes and scrapping the parish lengthsman scheme, which helps villages look after local infrastructure like ditches.

Other services that could be scaled back include school transport, short-break respite activities, and work by trading standards, such as safeguarding vulnerable adult victims of financial abuse. Public health services could also shrink to focus on those at highest risk.

The finances are based on the assumption of a nearly 5% typical increase in HCC’s majority share of the council tax for a band-D property. A hike of nearly 18% would be needed to avoid any cuts.

Councils are barred by law from charging for or axing some services. But HCC is also looking at lobbying the government to change the rules to allow greater powers to cut provision or bring in new fees.

Ideas include raising up to £500,000 by charging £10 for the currently-free older person’s bus pass; £1 a visit to waste centres to raise an annual £3m; and new fees for library membership and services. School transport could also be means-tested.

The council said using its uncommitted reserves would provide only enough money to fund services for 27 days before running out.

HCC’s new leader, Brockenhurst councillor Keith Mans, promised no decision had yet been made on any of the proposals, and residents’ feedback would be considered in drawing up the next budget.

Cllr Keith Mans
Cllr Keith Mans, Hampshire County Council leader and member for Brockenhurst

Cllr Mans said: “Our financial strategy to date has involved targeting resources on those who need them most, such as vulnerable children and adults, planning ahead and securing savings early. This approach has helped us to invest in new, more efficient ways of working.

“The careful use of reserves has helped to address gaps in funding and enabled the county council to meet the cost of additional pressures in demand for some services, such as social care.

“However, we now have to consider further ways of making ends meet, at the same time as protecting vital public services.”

Liberal Democrat Cllr Malcolm Wade, HCC member for Dibden and Hythe, described the council’s finances as being in “dire straits”.

“This extra saving will have a significant impact on the level of service for the people of Hampshire. People need to make their views known, and HCC should be doing everything it can to get the government to release more money to local government,” he said.

“You have got to look at priorities. The priority is the vulnerable, the elderly and the young and services that are needed to help people survive. I do not think the county council does enough lobbying of government and MPs to get a change. Me and my colleagues are very concerned.”

The six-week consultation will run until 17th July. Comments can be made online at www.hants.gov.uk/balancingthebudget. For paper copies of the document, email in-sight@hants.gov.uk, call 0300 555 1375 or pick one up at a local library.

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