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Cumbria County Council reopens debate over merger with six districts

Leading politicians on Cumbria County Council have called for the authority to be merged with the six district councils into one new unitary, as it sets out radical plans to cut back on services and simplify its structure to cut £80m over the next three years.

Plans for a single unitary authority were rejected by the Government in 2007 and opposed by the districts, but MPs and councillors from across the political spectrum in the county say the logic of a merger is “inescapable” and would save up to £36m a year, according to the News & Star.

Cumbria County Council’s own plans to make savings are currently out to consultation and include 35 areas of cutbacks, reforms and simplifications. The council has identified £24.4m of savings to be made over 2014/15 whilst protecting front-line services, it says, putting prevention before cure and “thinking local first”.

Increasing council tax, streamlining management and cutting back-office duplication are some of the proposals. Cumbria said that there will have to be over 600 redundancies.

It says a new centralised approach to commissioning and procuring £250m worth of services a year would save £1m each year, and downsizing and reshaping back office business support services (HR, communications, legal and democratic services, finance, property, policy, and performance) would save nearly £5.5m over the three years.

Subsidised bus services costing nearly £6m over three years will also be scrapped.

The biggest savings are set to be achieved in health and social care services, with the council saying that joined-up care will save £30m over three years, while it cuts £2.5m a year from the public health budget.

Cllr Jo Stephenson, Cumbria County Council’s deputy leader and Cabinet member responsible for resources, said: “The Government is taking a big bite out of our budget as part of its efforts to balance the nation’s books. The reduction in funding to local authorities means we will have one pound in every four less to spend by 2017.

“The savings propositions outlined in this consultation get us half way there in terms of delivering the next £80m we need to find. Even if we deliver every single saving outlined in this consultation, there is still an identified savings gap of just over £40m by 2017. Therefore we will have to be even more efficient, creative and focused on core priorities in 2015/16 and 2016/17.

“This is a time for tough decisions, and making difficult choices about what is really important. We must remember what we aren’t cutting back on – protecting what we consider to be the most vital services and the most vulnerable service users. So there are no propositions here to change the criteria under which older people are eligible for care or reduce the level of frontline service adult social care provides.

“We’re not asking the public whether we should close any children’s centres or cut the support we provide for children in care or at risk of harm. There are no proposals to cut the level of support we give to credit unions and other essential welfare services. And we’re not talking about cutting the funding for fixing potholes, instead we’re actually investing more in our highways.”

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