Plan to axe 140 jobs approved as part of council bid to save £24m

COUNCIL chiefs are to press ahead with plans to lay off 140 staff as they seek to make £24m of savings in a bid to balance their books.

Despite more North Tyneside councillors objecting to mayor Linda Arkley’s budget for the coming year than were in favour of it, she received enough votes for it to be approved.

Only 24 councillors voted for the budget, four fewer than were opposed to it, but the authority’s voting system meant Mrs Arkley only needed 21 votes to get it through.

That means residents are now set to benefit from a freeze in council tax rates.

Opposition councillors have called the budget an attack and cut on vital services, especially those for the elderly, but Mrs Arkley has dismissed their claims, saying the £24m in savings on the way will not be made at the expense of public services.

She told last Thursday’s budget-setting meeting: “In achieving these efficiencies, I’ve made it our priority to try to protect the front-line services that matter the most to the public.

“There will be no closures of schools, children’s centres, libraries or leisure centres.

“We’ve worked with unions and employees to keep redundancies to a minimum.”

An initial 90 people will leave the council – mostly through voluntary redundancy – by the end of this month, with up to 50 more redundancies expected over the next year.

Among the cost-cutting lined up is a restructuring of senior management intended to save £800,000, plus a further £100,000 saving by appointing an interim chief executive working part-time to replace John Marsden after he leaves at the end of this month.

Another £150,000 will be saved by reducing the use of consultants by five per cent, £418,000 will be saved by imposing a pay freeze on staff earning less than £21,000 a year, and £25,000 will be saved by asking officers to pay for membership of professional organisations out of their own pockets.

The council has agreed to keep weekly bin collections, but over a four-day week.

Cabinet members approved five amendments submitted by the Liberal Democrat group, including spending an additional £150,000 on Wallsend town centre and £25,000 on Whitley Bay’s Whitley Lodge shopping centre, as well as allocating £100,000 for improvements to Forest Hall’s shopping centre.

“Our town centres and their future growth have been a priority,” said Mrs Arkley. “We want to see them be successful.

“This additional investment will have an extremely positive impact on these areas and help stimulate the local economy for a more prosperous future.”

After the meeting, she added: “Despite the challenges, we have made choices that protect the front-line services that matter most to our residents.

“We have focused on growing this borough – providing investment and jobs, regenerating our communities and supporting our businesses.”

At the end of the coming financial year, the council is aiming to have £6.6m in balances, £6m in strategic reserves and a contingencies budget increased to £2.8m.

As part of its capital plan for the next four years, the council is proposing to invest £3.4m in youth facilities, £3m in coastal development, more than £7m in refurbishing parks, £3m in roads and pavements, £2.4m in the Warm Zone scheme over the next two years, and £4m in the refurbishment of Tynemouth Metro station.

The freeze in council tax means residents in a Band D property will pay £1,485 a year, including police and fire authority precepts.

Opposition councillors have hit out at what the budget proposes.

Labour’s Ray Glindon, of Camperdown, said: “Residents are worried about cuts to jobs, increases in charges and cuts to front-line services.

“This budget has all those elements in it.

“All the savings have not been identified, which could lead to further cuts in staff and services.”

His colleague Coun John Stirling, of the Chirton ward in North Shields, said: “The only thing this council has done is the road to nowhere in Whitley Bay (near the Spanish City Dome).

“I compare this budget to the first little pig who built a house from straw, except this administration have built it from a smoke screen, and the Big Bad Wolf, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, didn’t have to huff and puff. The house just blew away.”

Lib Dem group leader Coun Nigel Huscroft welcomed the fact the cabinet had accepted some of their objections, but said the budget did not go far enough, so they still could not support it.