HAVING been labelled the hardest-hit place in the country by austerity last year, the picture could have been very bleak for Barnsley Council in what has been called ‘the most difficult period in local government history’.
Instead, for the first time in ten years, the local authority has been able to put its hand in its pocket and provide more money for essential services and infrastructure.
A damning report released a year ago by charity Centre for Cities stated Barnsley’s day-to-day spending had reduced by 41 per cent – equivalent to a drop of £688 per person – due to cuts in funding from central government since 2009.
But council leader Sir Steve Houghton told the Chronicle the authority was ‘not out of the woods yet’, with savings made possible through streamlining services already ‘stretched to breaking point’ offsetting its reduced budget – and another potential hammer blow coming from central government in the form of a review that could see £4.5m cut from adult social care.
Coun Houghton said: “We have had a strategy of dealing with finances from the beginning which was realistic. A lot of councils tried to put off the evil day where cuts are made, while we took difficult decisions from day one because we knew austerity was going to be long-term.
“That’s been difficult because we’ve lost half the workforce, and people have seen a reduction of services.
“I’m not proud we’ve had to make these reductions in Barnsley, but I am proud of the way the council’s handled it. The staff, officers and members have done a brilliant job in steering the borough through the most difficult period in local government history.
“As part of that process we’ve been looking at how we can redefine the council’s role and how services are delivered.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, because despite what Boris says about investing money in the north, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The council has ‘one eye’ on the government fair funding review – which will affect how cash is allocated in April – with adult social care taking up the largest share of its budget.
The review will come in three phases, Coun Houghton said, with adult services the first and then children’s services and other front-line functions – such as waste collection and roads – later in the year.
Despite its performance so far in protecting those services, Coun Houghton said cuts to jobs and services could be a ‘worst-case scenario’ if further efficiencies – which have seen the council save £7.5m to be used next year – can’t be found.
“We’ve done brilliantly so far, but we can’t keep doing it,” he added. “It can’t get any worse, but we can’t lose any more so we’re hoping we’ve reached the nadir.”
The same Local Government Association report that outlined potential cuts to grants also praised the council’s financial diligence, with Coun Houghton adding the borough’s transformation in education across the last year has also been ‘phenomenal’.
“External analysis of us has validated the approach we took and confirmed the strategies we’ve put in place were the right ones,” he added. “Because if they hadn’t been we’d have been in worse position.”
Through those ‘efficiencies’, the council has been able to allocate money towards roads, children’s services, green spaces, and the Principal Towns scheme – and reduce council tax for 12,000 households, albeit with a 3.9 per cent rise to cover adult social care and general services.
“The success of the council is down to strong professional management and councillors being prepared to change direction and take difficult decisions,” said Coun Houghton.
“The good news if the government takes its foot off of local government’s throat and allows it to flourish, we’re in a heck of a good position.”