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Cash-strapped Somerset council might still fail to set ‘sustainable budget’ despite massive cuts

Somerset County Council might still fail to make sufficient savings to establish a “sustainable budget” even after the latest wave of major cuts were agreed last week.

On the 12 September, the cash-strapped authority approved over 70 proposals in order to make the required £13m savings which must be delivered by February 2019.

But its interim director of finance, Peter Lewis, said that the council’s progress needed to be closely monitored during an audit meeting on Thursday.

Several documents on Somerset’s financial health were presented to the council at the audit meeting, including one from Grant Thornton LLP, which had published an official audit report on the authority in July.

The company’s representatives said they acknowledged the council’s actions to tackle the overspending and “increased momentum,” but claimed that it was too early to say whether the new cuts would successfully be able to balance the budget.

The council’s official risk register measuring the risk of the council not being able to set a sustainable budget currently sits at ‘very high,’ and up to 130 jobs could be cut as part of the proposals.

According to local press, Lewis said during the meeting: “We are keeping our eyes very closely on this.

“Even if I were drafting this report now, I would not want to change the risk now because I would like to see plans coming forward.”

Somerset CC has made savings of around £130m in the past eight years. Its leader said the latest cuts were “not the biggest set of savings Somerset has faced,” but that they were “absolutely the most difficult.”

When the cuts were announced, further plans to scale back its Young Carers service were taken out of the approved proposals. However, Lewis said that “significant progress” was being made on the children’s services budget and that the matter would be discussed further in a council meeting on Wednesday.

In last week’s audit meeting, Lewis also criticised the media response to Somerset’s cuts and other councils’ financial issues, and argued that speculation over which council would become ‘the next Northamptonshire’ by issuing a section 114 notice was particularly damaging.

Many councils up and down the country are struggling financially, with the most widely-reported case being Northamptonshire CC, which recently made radical cuts to services as it fights a £70m budget deficit. Following its second section 114 notice, the council agreed reform proposals to create a unitary authority from the existing eight local authorities last month.

But many find themselves in a similar position, with several recently putting forward proposals to cut jobs and budgets in order to dodge a financial disaster.

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