Budget plans spark heated exchanges

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A MIXTURE of boos, jeers and applause rang around Wigan’s council chamber as the budget for next year was approved.

Having been berated by a group of chanting protestors at the entrance to the town hall, the borough’s leading Labour Party councillors backed plans to make more than £18m worth of savings in what they described as their most “difficult and challenging” budget.

Among the cuts being considered is a £5m reduction from social care services, £2m by reducing back office costs and £1m from a shared IT contract with Bolton Council.

Leader of the council, Lord Peter Smith, said: “Despite the Government’s cutbacks, we have been working hard to make sure our front line services are protected as best we can and this will continue.

“There will be some challenges ahead. I want us to make sure we take an imaginative approach to making the savings, such as by investing in our road infrastructure we can bring down repair costs.”

Wigan Council has received the third highest spending cuts out of the UK’s 152 local authorities and have already been forced to reduce their head count by the equivalent of 211 full-time positions.

Aspects of the budget that sparked heated debate in the chamber included the decision to impose a two per cent council tax rise and cabinet plans to put away more than £11m for long term savings.

Tyldesley’s Liberal Democrat representative Coun Paul Valentine, said: “There is more slight of hand in this budget than a Paul Daniels’ magic show.

“I can’t see how we can go cap in hand to the people of Wigan to cough up more money when we are putting away savings of £11.6m.

“To bombastically levy fault for all this at the government’s doorstep is not right, the cabinet must take responsibility for this budget.”

While leader of Wigan Independent Network, Coun Gary Wilkes, criticised the decision not to initiate a council tax freeze like authorities in Chorley and Blackburn.

The representative for Bryn, suggested that cutbacks should have been made by scrapping the council’s borough life magazine, reducing the amount spent on town hall refurbishments and streamlining Metrofresh services.

Although, Coun Wilkes, who accused the council of “pick-pocketing from the people of Wigan” admitted that these would be one-off savings and further cuts would need to be found at the next budget.

Lord Smith countered, explaining that the budget would prepare the borough for further local government funding cuts.

He said: “There is more to come, the government is going to cut public spending year on year and we have a responsibility to take care of not just this year but into 2013, 14, 15 and 16.

“Good, loyal people who work with us have lost their jobs because of these financial pressures. But we aware that these hard decisions have got to be made.

“We promise to protect the most vulnerable in the community and provide social and economic opportunities to our residents.”

Protestors had gathered outside the Town Hall, urging councillors not to back the budget that could result in the closure of several day care centres across the borough.

But the controversial plans – which at one stage required Mayor Myra Whiteside to call for silence in the public gallery – were voted through with a majority of 60 to 10.

Lord Smith added: “We plan to modernise how we provide social care, it will mean significant changes, but we aim to do it in a sympathetic and co-operative way.”