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Voluntary sector questions plans to claw back funding
COUNCIL bosses have been urged to work with Oxfordshire’s voluntary organisations over plans to save around £64m.
Oxfordshire County Council’s budget plans for the next four years were subjected to their first public discussion at a meeting of the council’s performance scrutiny committee yesterday.
Representatives of community groups packed the meeting room at County Hall to challenge cuts to grant funding for their organisations and services which are vital to the people they represent.
Age UK Oxfordshire chief executive Paul Cann said: “I would like to start by recognising what a difficult hand Whitehall has given Oxfordshire and I would like to applaud the efforts that have been made to protect frontline services and keep people active in the community.
“I would like this to become a joint process with the voluntary and community sector working with the council on the detail.” He questioned plans to save £200,000 by cutting the council’s laundry, meals and shopping service for the elderly.
He added that the council should work to help address a problem of £24m in pension credit which goes unclaimed in Oxfordshire, saying the money could help people remain independent.
Oxfordshire Pensioners’ Action Group spokesman Michael Hugh-Jones, 85, arrived at the meeting armed with a counter-proposal – a voluntary increase in council tax.
He said well-off Oxfordshire residents should give money to the council which can only put council tax up by 1.99 per cent because of Government rules.
Mr Hugh-Jones said: “In my view the vast majority of households in Oxfordshire are well-off. There is no lack of money in Oxfordshire and the average household could easily afford to contribute another £100 to the council’s coffers, but this is prohibited by the Government.
“I do hope people will voluntarily give more money to the council and I am personally willing to give Mr Hudspeth a cheque for £100 to contribute to this deficit.”
Concerns were also raised by councillors on the committee, who will present their findings to the council’s cabinet this afternoon.
Abingdon North councillor Sandy Lovatt said: “There is a tendency in all the budgets we have seen so far towards centralisation which is isolating the communities. I see the links to the localities being broken.”
The councillors’ views will now be presented to the cabinet, which will meet at 2pm at County Hall.
Chief exec’s office/ cultural services
Director: Joanna Simons
Current budget: £9.8m
Cuts proposed: £1.5m
CUTS to theatres and services for refugees were discussed at the meeting, with organisations pleading for changes to the proposals.
Pegasus Theatre chief executive Jonathan Lloyd said a plan to cut its budget from £68,000 to £22,000 should be reviewed, and said his organisation was willing to accept a cut of one third, instead of the two thirds proposed.
And Refugee Resource director Dr Anthony Kingsley said: “The proposed cuts to the annual grant of £45,000 came out of the blue and with no warning. The council’s proposal will have an immediate consequence.”
But council chief executive Joanna Simons said her department now planned to phase cuts to Refugee Resource instead of making them all at once.
Environment and economy
Director: Huw Jones
Current budget: £90.8m
Cuts proposed: £11.2m
OXFORDSHIRE Waste Partnership chairman David Dodds was at the meeting to ask the council to reconsider plans to cut funding for his organisation.
The county council currently pays for £123,744 of OWP’s £350,000 budget, with the rest coming from the county’s five district councils.
The partnership employs two members of staff and focuses on education and awareness raising to increase recycling rates.
Mr Dodds said: “Here is our rationale for keeping OWP – it is cheaper to recycle.”
Adult social care
Director: John Jackson
Current budget: £292.3m
Cuts proposed: £7.1m
CONCERNS were raised about cuts of £1.5m to housing-related support funding.
The council currently spends about £4m on supporting housing-related support, which helps tackle homelessness in the city.
Lesley Dewhurst, chief executive of Oxford Homeless Pathways – responsible for spending £1m of the budget – described the cuts as “catastrophic”.
She said: “I think it is essential that you are able to make properly informed decisions rather than accepting the proposed blanket retrenchment to simply stop supporting non-statutory activities.
“The proposed reduction of 38 per cent to the housing-related support budget would be catastrophic and I urge you to seriously consider this in light of what I am going to say.
“Homeless people are, arguably, the most vulnerable in our society. Contrary to tabloid opinion becoming homeless really could happen to any of us at any time in our lives – with devastating consequences.”
She said homelessness rates were rising and said the work of organisations like hers, which provide shelter and advice among other things, asked if it was moral to cut services for homeless people.
Concerns were also raised about cuts of £300,000 in funding for advice services.
The grants currently given to advice services like the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Rose Hill and Donnington Advice Centre and other centres seem small compared to the council’s overall budgets, but make up large proportion of the centres’ funding.
Director: Jonathan McWilliam
Current budget: £26.7m
Cuts proposed: £2.5m
DISCUSSIONS about public health focused on the department’s plans to save money through better contract negotiations.
Mr McWilliam said the department was still running old NHS contracts, but would try to save money where it could when they came up for renewal.
Fire service and community safety
Director: David Etheridge
Current budget £31.1m
Cuts proposed: £614,000
CHIEF fire officer David Etheridge, left, set out plans to review how firefighters worked in areas like Bicester, Banbury and Carterton. The fire service was praised by councillors, who said they were pleased the county was one of 13 to have its fire service included under the umbrella of the county council.
Children, families and education
Director: Jim Leivers
Current budget: £98m
Cuts proposed: £6.4m
CLOSURES of children’s centres may be off the table, but concerns about cuts to the budget for the services are still rife.
The council has to find £3m of savings from the budget for children’s centres and early intervention hubs.
Leader Ian Hudspeth has already ruled out closures over the next four years, but the savings will come at a cost.
Committee vice-chairman Neil Fawcett said: “We all appreciate the importance of family centres, but my question is how can these savings be made?”
The committee also spoke about safeguarding, and was reminded by cabinet member Melinda Tilley that more people were responsible for looking after the county’s children than just their parents.
Mrs Tilley said: “It is everybody’s job to look after everybody’s children, to keep their eyes open. We need GPs, teachers, all sorts of people to be keeping an eye on them.”
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