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Government cash cuts bring jobs losses and council tax rise in Islington

Union alarmed as Town Hall leader admits staff face ‘some pain’

11 January, 2019 — By Emily Finch

Council leader Richard Watts and finance chief Andy Hull

THE Town Hall leader has warned that council tax is to rise by the maximum amount for the second year running and around 100 council jobs will be cut to balance the books.

Islington Council leader Richard Watts announced a 2.99 per cent rise in tax for residents, which he says will amount to only a 60p rise per week for the average household.

He said: “The small rise in council tax like this, I think people will accept given the need to carry on funding services in the light of continued massive government cuts.”

He reassured residents that regular bin collections, library services and free school meals for primary school children will remain in place.

Council tax rose by 5.99 per cent last year – the maximum possible amount allowed by the government. That figure in­cluded a one-off precept, amounting to three per cent, to fund adult social care services.

Cllr Watts highlighted how cuts from central government, alongside a rising demand for services, will mean a £50million budget gap in Islington over the next three years.

The budget papers – to go before the council executive on Thursday – explain how the council plans to make £33.8million worth of savings in the next few years.

The documents reveal that £1.35million will be saved this year through “efficiency savings in revenue and benefits”.

Cllr Watts explained to the Tribune that this would mean cutting 190 posts at the council, of which around half are currently filled. He warned that those people would be losing their jobs over the next three years.

“Any job loss is a tragedy and there will be some pain for our council employees,” he said.

Council finance chief Andy Hull highlighted the benefits to council workers of a three-year budget plan compared to the usual one-year plan.

He said: “What’s good for the rest of the staff is we are not giving them just one year of security but three years.”

Cllr Watts said job cuts will be spread throughout departments. There are around 4,550 staff currently employed by the council.

Other major projected savings over the next three years are in the children, employment and skills department and the environment and regeneration department. The council predicts it will make savings of £4.3million over three years through the “recruitment of additional children’s social workers to reduce longer-term demand”.

A change in policy related to the diesel surcharge will net the council a near £4million worth of savings by 2022.

Cllr Watts said council staff had been doing “contingency work” for the country’s planned exit from the European Union, scheduled for the end of March. But he added: “If there is a no-deal Brexit it will be so chaotic and difficult to predict what’s going to happen that only God knows. I have been reluctant to make cuts in order to predict stuff.”

Cllr Hull said the new budget “is an example of us being prudent” in preparation for Brexit.

“This budget increases the reserves from only four per cent of our overall budget and balances to five per cent,” he said. “If you think Brexit exacerbates the risk of a rainy day you need to make sure you’re providing for it.”

He added that there was a predicted underspend from last year’s budget – the council is currently underspending by £742,000 in month eight of the financial year, which ends in April.

“We made a real effort to show financial discipline. It’s great for me to be presenting an underspend to the executive,” said Cllr Hull.

The council plans to spend £187million on building more than 550 new homes and will inject £500,000 into projects tackling serious youth violence.

Trade union Unison branch secretary Jane Doolan said she would be scheduling an urgent meeting with Cllr Watts to discuss the job cuts.

“We are quite alarmed that so many posts are going, particularly posts filled by members of staff,” she said. “We already have a dwindling workforce but they are expected to do the same amount of work with no extra pay. The unfilled vacancies are being covered by staff.”

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