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Cheshire East Council chiefs insist they can achieve their cost savings targets as they tackle a budget overspend estimated at £7.5 million, writes Stephen Topping.

Council members were warned about the funding gap for 2019-20 at last October’s full council meeting.

The authority is now tackling its budget plans for 2020-21 – which includes spending plans and savings targets to balance the books at almost £300 million.

But at a scrutiny meeting on Thursday, Cllr Rod Fletcher, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, raised doubts over CEC’s ability to meet its targets – suggesting too many of the ideas were yet to be ironed out.

He said: “A budget should identify robust savings.

“You should not be putting savings into a budget if you are then going to look at how you are going to do it.

“We are going to make a decision what should be a robust budget next month.

“To me this just seems to be hopeful guesswork and I don’t think we should be putting that into a budget.

“It is why this council has been overspending its services budget over the last few years, and why at the moment we are heading for a £7.5 million potential overspend.”

Of the overspend estimated in October, £5.5 million was from the ‘people’ department, which oversees social care services.

Mark Palethorpe, acting executive director of people at CEC, moved to reassure Cllr Fletcher that the savings proposals in the budget for next year “have been looked at in detail”.

He said: “Those proposals may be difficult, but they are achievable.

“It doesn’t mean to say they will be done easily, but they are achievable – I wouldn’t put my name to something if I didn’t think it was.

“That doesn’t mean to say it won’t be a difficult thing to do, because it will be re-configuring and changing services.”

An email was sent to CEC staff last November by Kath O’Dwyer, acting chief executive, informing them of an “approximate £8 million gap” for 2019-20 and asking for ideas to boost CEC’s coffers.

It included three measures to help balance the books – a recruitment freeze except on ‘business critical’ roles, an end to non-essential expenditure and a deferral on contract procurement.

Asked whether the overspend had increased from £7.5 million reported last October, finance director Alex Thompson told the committee an update would be provided next month, showing areas of council overspend and underspend.

He added: “The only reassurance you can have absolutely right now is that the activities we identified in the mid-year review where those figures were published, we are carrying out those activities in order to try and achieve a balanced position.”

Consultation on CEC’s budget plans for 2020-21 ended on Monday, and councillors are expected to sign off the final proposals at the full council meeting on February 20.

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