Tax frozen but more tough times lie ahead

Wigan Town Hall
Wigan Town Hall

SENIOR councillors have approved plans to freeze council tax and make £12m in savings but warned austerity will last well beyond the general election.

Wigan Council’s cabinet approved the measures for 2015/16 to boost cash-strapped households and also said the town hall had now fully implemented the living wage to help workers on low incomes.

However, the budget report by deputy chief executive Paul McKevitt warned the borough will need to keep tightening its belt for at least three years to come regardless of who is in Downing Street at the end of May.

Mr McKevitt said despite signs of economic growth the outlook for Wigan Council will remain “severely challenging” and “there is no let-up” in the borough’s need for reform to make public services cheaper.

He added: “The council has responded well to the difficult settlements of recent years and has managed shrinking budgets by transforming rather than cutting front line services. We have achieved greater efficiency through renegotiating contracts saving nearly £3m this year and in the back office and processing we will continue to find new efficiencies as the council modernises.”

It is estimated Wigan Council will have to save a total of £46m by 2018, by which time the town hall’s budget will have been trimmed by almost £130m since 2010.

The authority has earmarked £25m for the Better Care Fund (BCF) package in 2015/16 with several new projects designed to reduce emergency admissions to hospital and increase care in community settings.

Beyond the next financial year’s £12m in savings the local authority believes it will have its funding from Westminster reduced by 11.1 per cent in 2016/17 and 8.7 per cent in 2017/18 - regardless of who is in power. This will translate into savings of £18m in 2016/17 and £16m the year after.

Efforts to transform council services and deliver savings will continue with five major programmes including radically changing services for young people, adult social care and environmental services. The cabinet also hailed the success of the borough’s recycling scheme, saying it is saving around £1m a year and boosted recycling rates by 16 per cent.

However, demographic changes mean adult social care alone will require at least £1.3m per year just to maintain current levels of service in the face of rising demand and more complex needs.

The council is also investing in apprenticeships, the £4m community investment fund for charities and community groups and a 20mph road safety scheme, with work on the Westwood Link Road supported by £10.4m of grant funding also starting in 2015/16.

Deputy leader Coun David Molyneux said: “At Wigan Council we have taken a different approach to simply cutting council services. Through The Deal we have transformed how we work and as a consequence we are now in a strong financial position to take up the unwelcome challenge of further cuts in public spending. Our residents have supported us through this by fulfilling their side of the Deal by recycling more, volunteering and engaging with the delivery of services.

“It is thanks to them that we are able to freeze council tax and car park charges and provide some financial relief to residents and support to businesses and town centre traders.”

The budget goes full council next month for approval.