children's services- Council Tax hike - chief executive appointed

Tory councillors have demanded to know why Cheshire East Council is not selling off or re-using derelict buildings instead of proposing staff and service cuts, writes Belinda Ryan.

Members of the children and families committee met to discuss the medium term financial strategy 2023-27 where savings have to be made as the council struggles to balance its books as costs rise, inflation soars and demand on the service grows.

Among pressures on the children and families budget is the soaring cost of school transport.

This will have an extra £4m impact on the budget. Pay inflation will add an extra £3m, an extra £1.9m is forecast in the growth in children’s social care.

The council is looking to make savings in areas including £950,000 in staffing including re-structure and not filling all existing vacancies and saving £200,000 by a redesign of early help services; as well as reducing legacy pension commitments and finding funding streams and income opportunities within education and skills.

Committee chair Kathryn Flavell (Lab) told members the job of the committee was to provide feedback and any suggested changes proposed at full council would have to be fully costed.

Cllr Michael Beanland asked how the council proposed to make the £950,000 saving.

Executive director of children’s services Deborah Woodcock said the £950,000 will be saved by streamlining so the council can deliver its services differently for less.

Cllr Beanland said the council didn’t want to lose good staff and suggested an alternative ways to save costs would be to look at buildings.

“I’ve got a school (Vernon Infant School) which has been vacant in Poynton for a number of years now and there’s just nothing been moved on it,” he said.

“Surely that’s the kind of thing we should be looking at. Either use these services or pass them on.”

Cllr Jos Saunders (Poynton, Con) agreed.

“I just don’t agree in cuts to staffing levels in our social services,” she said.

“We all know that our families are facing profound difficulties, I don’t think now is the time to be cutting services.

“Cllr Beanland has already alluded to Vernon Infant School which has been lying dormant, in fact it’s costing the council money to make it safe so kids don’t go in there and we’ve also got other estates – we’ve got Mount View and Bexton Court.

“I think we should be having an audit of our buildings and seeing whether we can utilise them or access more money by selling them off. They’ve been lying empty, some of them for a number of years.”

Conservative group leader Janet Clowes said: “You had two capital addendums put on the budget in 2020 to use Mount View (in Congleton) and to use Bexton Court (Knutsford) for provision.

“It was fully costed at that time and it would have started to make cost benefits to the services involved within a five year period. Opportunities lost.

“But they are still there because they are still standing empty. Let’s not forget them.”

She said the business cases would need to be reviewed ‘but the idea was to bring in SEND (special educational needs and disability) provision and bring people in from outside of area, so please can we have a look at that’.

Several Tory councillors also expressed concerns they could not propose changes to the budget at the meeting and they were reminded they could propose amendments at full council on February 22 – but they would have to be costed.

Cllr Flavell said the cost-cutting proposed by officers would not disrupt children’s frontline services.

“This is not happening because the council didn’t manage its money, it’s happened because of unpredicted and extraordinary increases in the cost of living and inflation and all the services we use are all going up and demand is increasing as well, but our funding is not increasing,” she said.

The public consultation on the draft budget closes on January 30. To view the draft budget click here

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