An ageing local population, a growing need to support vulnerable children and no indication from central government of additional cash support is forcing West Sussex County Council to make savings it had desperately wanted to avoid.
Leader Louise Goldsmith this week admitted that it gave her sleepless nights, as she explained the authority may have to find as much as £145m in savings over the next four years, and next year has to bridge a budget gap of £33m. So far £24m worth of savings have currently been identified, leaving the county council £9m short.
If the council refused to make cuts it could end up effectively bankrupt like Northamptonshire County Council - although prudent financial control means it is some way from that at the moment. If it chose to get council taxpayers to make up the shortfall - even if the rules allowed such a move - that could burden residents with a rise of up to 15 per cent.
Increases at a third of that level provoked public outrage last year especially among pensioners struggling on fixed incomes to fund their council tax.
Much of the council’s work is now focused on the delivery of services to the most vulnerable - for which it has a statutory obligation.
Which means, even as it makes savings where the law allows it leaves it no wriggle room to do the additional things that residents want - like resurfacing roads.
After much heart-searching, Mrs Goldsmith said one of the options the county council is looking at is ending contracts with a range of organisations providing housing related support services from April 2019.
Some of the charities affected have warned that this would have a massive effect on the levels of services they are able to provide, leading to increased homelessness and more people rough sleeping.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “Every sinew in my body does not want to do this, but every brain cell says I have got to so that’s what we are doing.”
The alternatives of not providing a balanced budget were not worth contemplating.
Back in 2011 the Government stopped ring fencing the grant it gave the county council for housing support services and since then the authority has continued to fund them from its base budget.
Mrs Goldsmith said it was the right time to review the commissioned services, adding: “This is the start of the conversation. There is no done deal with the announcement we put in our forward plan, this is a deeply important and sensitive matter and we will work carefully with it, but in the end it is not our primary statutory duty as much as it would be us wanting to do it.”
Mrs Goldsmith described the work of charities such as Worthing Churches Homeless Projects and Stonepillow as ‘fantastic’.
She added: “District and borough councils, NHS, Police have all got budgets for homelessness to a degree but I think all we all need to pull together because that approach is reflected in the Government’s recent Homeless strategy to deal with this and all its complexities.”
At a recent meeting of the West Sussex council leaders’ board with her district and borough colleagues they agreed to work together to mitigate any impacts and undertake a piece of work to look at all the issues.
Meanwhile Amanda Jupp, the county council’s cabinet member for adults and health, is due to hold a series of round-table meetings with all the charities involved.
Mrs Goldsmith said: “We will sit down and look at where everybody is coming from and how we can work together to best mitigate the impacts of that particular part saving.”
The housing support services budget is around £6.4m a year, and if the county council has to look elsewhere for savings it would have to consider widespread closures of libraries and children and family centres.
Mrs Goldsmith said they were not anywhere near the position of authorities such as Northamptonshire, but added: “If we do not take this action now we will go down the slippery slope very quickly.”