The clock is ticking. Parish and town councils across Shropshire have been told by Shropshire Council that if they want museums, libraries, buses and street cleaning, they’ll have to take it on themselves. And local councils have just five months to do agree do that, otherwise Shropshire Council will consider scrapping the service from April 2017.
For Ludlow Town Council, this could mean picking up a tab of more than £700,000 – the biggest bill in the county outside of Shrewsbury. Even more than Oswestry.
Council leader, Malcolm Pate suggests in today’s Star that local councils could hike their precepts to pay for services previously run by Shirehall. This is disingenuous. The government has put on record that it will not allow large local tax rises without a costly referendum.
The recent court case over Church Stretton library – which Shropshire Council did not defend – suggests the council doesn’t yet understand how to engage with many communities. I’m not allowed to talk about that after an edict from senior officers gagging all councillors.
Shropshire Council is suffering huge budget cuts imposed by George Osborne. The situation is made worse by its repeated inability to keep its finances in check. Overspends have become normal. The failure to raise council tax year on year since 2009 has left the council’s bank balance in a precarious state.
Faced with this financial crisis, Shropshire Council has decided to abandon responsibility for delivering a whole range of services.
At last Wednesday’s council cabinet meeting, the controlling Conservative group agreed a policy titled: “A partnership approach in designing the future of our local services.” This paper shows that when it comes to commissioning services, nothing has changed since Keith Barrow’s reign over the council. The council does not want to be responsible for running many of the public services that residents in the county expects it to provide.
Services under threat in Ludlow include the library. This costs £116,060 to run each year. This is a lot less than I would have thought given that it costs £31,350 to run our much smaller Youth Centre. But then it costs £12,000 a year to clean the Youth Centre – an obvious waste of public money. Shropshire Council had planned a review of the hub libraries. Now it is to proceed with commissioning out the library service here in Ludlow, Oswestry, Bridgnorth and Whitchurch and there is no mention of the review.
Despite Shropshire Council’s apparent wish to divest itself of anything and everything, the Youth Centre is not on the council’s list for a community asset transfer to local groups or the town council. This veto, which does not apply to youth centres in other towns, is because the council doesn’t think the building is a youth centre. It describes it as a “corporate building.” I understand it plans to move more of its staff into the building. That will make it much more difficult to use it for youth services.
Leisure, like youth services, is threatened with a zero budget from April 2017. Ludlow Leisure Centre, run by Teme Leisure, costs the council £186,080 a year. If we can’t continue to run affordable leisure services in Ludlow, people’s health and wellbeing will decline. That will transfer the costs to adult social care and the health services.
Under the arts, culture and museums heading, we have the Museum Resource Centre and Ludlow Assembly Rooms. The annual bill here is £279,110 plus £25,000 for the visitor information centre. The Assembly Rooms has a planned route to become independent of council control. There is no suggestion at the moment that the Museum Resource Centre will be transferred from Shropshire Council but the predicted budget for museums across the county is zero from April 2017. So we won’t have any museum services that aren’t self-funding, which the Museum Resource Centre can never be. Shropshire Council is saying nothing about how it is going to resolve this problem.
All in all, Ludlow could need to take on extra costs of more than £700,000. Even with efficiencies and cuts, we may still be looking a bill above half a million every year.
Is Shropshire Council doing the right thing? I don’t think so. I think it is taking the lazy way out of the current financial problems by threatening to cut services altogether. I think it is abandoning its role as a civic leader.
Council leader Malcolm Pate told the Shropshire Star that town and parish councils are free to raise precepts by as much as they like. That’s a very limited perspective on reality. The government has made it absolutely clear that if parish councils hike their precepts, it will force then to hold a referendum on future increases.
This means that parish councils cannot guarantee that they will have enough income to manage any services they take on from Shropshire Council.
This is a huge challenge to local councils. Parish and town councils like Ludlow will need to change the way they work if they take on extra services. That probably means different staff and committee structures. But the clock is ticking with just five months to go.
. Shropshire Council is limited to a 1.99% rise – plus the adult social care supertax of 2%. Above these levels, proposed council tax rises must be approved in a countywide referendum.