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Coping with the cuts in Bexley

Oneill Cllr Teresa O'Neill, the Leader of the London Borough of Bexley and Outer London Advisor to the Mayor of London, on how the challenge of finding big savings and protecting key services can be met

Last November, as I reported on Conservative Home, we published our plans to reduce spending in Bexley by £35million over the next three years.

We published every single item, line by line, of “Strategy 2014” for everyone to see and we invited residents to give us their feedback. Our priority has been to protect the key universal and essential services used by all from the spending cuts.

95% of residents who read the plans and commented said they support that approach.

Now we are getting on with implementing our strategy.

As everyone in local government knows, none of this is easy and the scale of the reductions needed is enormous, but the situation has to be dealt with quickly and clearly.

In the last few weeks we have formalised merging the administrative side of libraries with our neighbours in Bromley. That in itself will deliver huge savings - in the region of £750,000 across the two Boroughs - but alongside that smaller things like opening libraries half an hour later, and reducing the number open late at night with no-one in them will also help deliver savings. In addition, several local organisations have put forward plans for taking over the running of some of the libraries.

If you take all that together, you see that while our nearby Labour councils appear to be rushing to close their libraries, we are keeping ours open.

We have ensured that there are no changes to the criteria under which adults in need receive care - while not a service received by as many residents as refuse & recycling collection it is an absolutely vital one for those who need help and we will not make them pay the price for the Labour Government's financial disaster.

We have protected the road maintenance budget and are putting three million pounds into repairing roads and pavements this year. This is the service people most say they want to see given priority, and we are doing just that,

We have switched off an expensive fountain in the centre of Bexleyheath and turned it into a new flower bed – reducing the maintenance costs from £10,000 a year to just £200 - and a local historic society has now offered to sponsor it and cover all those costs, which was very generous of them.

For the first time, we are about to introduce paying for parking by mobile phone – I know this is something many councils already do, but we are getting there now. This of course reduces the need to collect money from the machines every day, and makes the whole process easier.

A 20% reduction in senior management has been mirrored by a reduction in the size of the Cabinet, and councillors’ allowances, already some of the lowest in London, have been frozen for five years.

And just a few days ago, we disposed of the site of two rarely used and expensive toilets, which led to the sites being sold at auction for £300,000 – far above the list prices.

Alongside all of this, we are starting a major project that will bring the 4 main council offices onto one new site, delivering huge efficiencies and savings at no cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, there have had to be some hard decisions too; it is simply not possible to find the savings we need just from the back office, so yes, some charges have gone up, for parking, for burials, for sport activities and a wide range of other non-essential and discretionary services. Few of these are popular when initially introduced but the response to our plans shows that two thirds of residents back the
principle of charging for discretionary non-essential services in order to save core services.

Overall, our strategy delivers 70% of our savings from the back office, not the front-line and does ensure we protect key services while reducing our own costs. A quick look across London shows that many of the Labour councils are simply cutting services and trying to blame it all on the Government. Labour councils seem to think the answer is to cut frontline services in order to protect back office costs when we, like many other Conservative councils, are showing that the opposite is the right thing to do - cutting back office costs to protect frontline services.


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