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Plan to cut £500k from legal budget at council "will increase risk of mistakes"

The legal services department at Cornwall Council could see a reduction in staffing aimed at saving £500,000 in 2015/16, if draft budget proposals for the local authority are approved later this year.

The savings amount to 16% of the 2014/15 budget for legal services and are part of an authority-wide drive to save £196m over the next four years.

The proposals, which have been recommended by the council’s Cabinet members and can be viewed here, said the reduction in staffing would be achieved through a service restructure.

“The consequence of this proposal is that there will be a reduction in capacity and resilience of the service and this may result in potential costs to client services from the need to outsource work,” it acknowledged.

“There will also be reduced resources to respond to major corporate issues. There will be an increased risk of mistakes. It is also likely to result in a loss of external income.

“Conversely, there is an opportunity for enhancing staff empowerment and rationalising managerial arrangements.”

A further saving of £821,000 is expected to be made through staff savings in Legal, Democratic and Electoral Services by 2018/19.

The draft proposals said this would represent a further 15% of the remaining staff, but – once procurement is removed for various reasons from the total – the figure would be closer to 25%.

“Clearly, there will be significant impact,” it admitted. “Legal would have to look at removing a whole team of fee earners which could inevitably lead to a cost shunt to other directorates. It is not possible to take a further 15% out of staffing costs whilst retaining legal support to all council functions and service areas.”

There was also a warning of the impact on Democratic Services’ ability to facilitate the meetings that are required at the same level together with associated member support for a council of 123 members, “unless of course there were a radical reduction in both the number of member meetings and also the extent of support to councillors”.

The document said the service would, over the next two years, explore cross-sector working in Cornwall and potential shared working across the South West Peninsular, but warned that this was “unlikely to generate anything like the level of savings and/or income required to balance the budget”.

On the plans overall, Cornwall described the scale of savings required as “unprecedented”, with all of its areas affected. It insisted thought that it would not ‘salami slice’ every service.

The council said three key priority areas had been identified during consultation:

  1. Services for the most vulnerable in society (including vulnerable adults, children, older people and the poorest);
  2. Public transport;
  3. Road repairs and maintenance.

Cornwall said its aim was to strengthen its partnerships with the rest of the public and community sector in order to make as many savings as possible without cuts to frontline services.

It added that it had identified services to a value of at least £34m that could potentially be put up for devolution, “and could be considerably more”. It also plans to work on integrating services currently run by government departments, the NHS, voluntary and community sectors and the council.

Cllr John Pollard, Cornwall’s Leader, said: “We are determined to focus on what Cornwall will be like in 2019, rather than what we need to cut. Budgetary constraints and the changing nature of local government require a different approach and, as we said last year, we want to build a resilient and sustainable Cornwall and not simply reduce the services we provide.

“To this end we have worked with councillors, officers and partners to develop this budget, the council’s strategy which underpins it, and a business plan which will implement it. Our commitment is to create a leaner, more resourceful organisation that delivers essential council services in the most efficient and effective way. This also means having the courage to make some extremely difficult decisions.”

Cllr Pollard said the council had also been pressing the Government to change the way local government is funded to give Cornwall a fairer share of the money it allocated to councils to provide services.

“We currently receive less than half the money per head of population than that given to Hackney and if we were funded in the same way as an average urban council we would receive an additional £48m a year,” he argued.

“We are continuing to have discussions with Ministers over the need to recognise the cost of providing services to people in Cornwall and have recently sent a submission to the Independent Commission set up to look at this issue setting out how we think the system should be reformed.”

Cllr Alex Folkes, Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources, said £30m of savings had been identified through a radical restructure of senior management, a 59% reduction in the use of consultants and agency staff, and a local pay agreement with staff.

The council said that the draft budget proposals were based around four key areas:

  • Working with staff to reduce the pay bill – “including further restructuring and the transfer of staff to new models of delivery and arm’s length companies”;
  • New models of delivery – “including integrating health and social care services; devolving further services to town and parish councils and community and voluntary groups (eg libraries ); creating trusts and partnerships to deliver services such as culture and tourism, and seeking external partners for services such as parking”. 
  • Management improvements – “including delivering more services digitally and through the website; reducing administrative costs in areas such as IT and postage; more effective procurement and contract management and sharing buildings with partners and community groups”;
  • Increasing income – “taking a more commercial approach in areas such as public protection, licensing, planning, and waste”.

The budget proposals, which will still leave the council with a £6m funding shortfall, will be considered by Cornwall’s portfolio advisory committees during September. Twenty public meetings will be held the following month. The consultation closes on 29 October.

A revised draft will go before Cabinet on 5 November and full council will take the final decision on 22 November.