Protest and brutal budget meeting sees Northamptonshire Tories taken to task on £65m cuts

Members of the public, union members and service users protested against the planned �65m worth of cuts to the county council outside County Hall yesterday.
Members of the public, union members and service users protested against the planned �65m worth of cuts to the county council outside County Hall yesterday.

“Hang your heads in shame,” said one speaker as Northamptonshire County Council’s cabinet faced a barrage of criticism for its £65 million cutting budget proposals yesterday.

The controlling Tory group gave approval to the vast cuts for 2016/17 at County Hall yesterday - but only after enduring two-hour onslaught from members of the public and opposition councillors.

The Conservative cabinet during yesterday's meeting.

The Conservative cabinet during yesterday's meeting.

A third of those cuts, close to £24 million, will come out of the adult social care budget, with subsidies for meals on wheels and the trips and falls service among many to go.

A care home at Ecton Brook will close - but perhaps more crucially the council will look to save money by reviewing the care packages people with sometimes complex needs are on to see where it can save money.

A 50-strong protest, held outside county hall before the meeting, set the tone for an uncomfortable afternoon for the Conservatives.

In the council chamber Speaker Michael Nagle, who has speech and mobility issues, told the cabinet about his fears on the £24 million cut to adult social care: “Both me and my wife have support independently, we are worried about how these cuts will affect us.

“We are worried about losing our home, without it, we can’t live independently.”

John Smith of Disabled People Against Cuts, said he was deeply concerned about the re-assessments of people, like himself, on advanced care packages.

He said: “You seem to be using Orwell’s 1984 as a guidebook for how to run a local authority. These cuts will harm and kill communities and destroy lives.”

Paul Crofts poured scorn on what many have seen as vague and jargon-laden budget proposals to save money.

“This council is playing with the people of Northamptonshire,” he said at the protest.

“It is not clear from the paperwork exactly where any of the savings will be coming from - they are mythical.”

Anjona Roy, who runs Dostiyo, an Asian women’s group which is set to have its funding reduced, added: “Papers have only been released this morning for debate this afternoon, and members of the public had to register to speak two days ago.

“So much for openness, transparency and accountability.”

And leaving the speakers’ podium, she said: “You ought to hang your heads in shame.”

While some of nearly 20 speakers chose to blame the austerity policies of the Conservative government for leaving the county council in its financial state - others believed the authority should have raised council tax over the past decade rather than freezing it for successive years.

Northampton resident, Anthony Watts, said: “Yes I and others have £200 extra or so in our pockets, but we have less and less social services, amenities, call them what you like.

“This situation has been largely caused by your inability to manage the finances of the county council.”

In a meeting which saw several in the public gallery hurl catcalls at the Tory cabinet members, many speakers continue over their allotted three minutes and others asked to leave, opposition councillors then weighed in on the debate.

Among them, Labour group leader Councillor John McGhee criticised Northamptonshire’s seven Tory MPs for not exerting more pressure on their central government colleagues for extra funds.

Earlier yesterday, however, finance chief Councillor Bill Parker announced that some of the more unpopular cuts to the fire service and the Countywide Traveller Unit had been scaled back after “listening to the public”.

The original cuts figure was £77 million, but that has now decreased to £65 million in 2016/17 as the council will look to smooth cuts over a four-year period.

Speaking on behalf of the proposals, deputy leader Councillor Heather Smith, though the final budget papers were only released yesterday morning, said a consultation period has been open for 14 weeks for people to participate in.

She said: “We have had considerable time to look at these directorate plans and be satisfied that the budget we are putting forward is realistic.

“It is going to be hard no one doubts that.”

The budget proposals will now come back to the full council meeting on February 29 where the full chamber will vote on whether to approve them.