Derbyshire County Council has offered assurances that it has been briefing its workforce and unions about its fraught financial position after stating that redundancies cannot be ruled out as it considers how to balance an estimated £39.5m budget shortfall for the 2024-25 financial year.
The Conservative-led council has identified nearly £32m of possible saving and efficiency plans for some of its services but it has also identified an additional possible saving plan of over £7.5m with what the authority refers to as a “vacancy factor across pay budgets”.
After Deputy Council Leader Cllr Simon Spencer, who is also the Cabinet Member for Corporate Services and Budget, stated that future staff redundancies cannot be ruled out, the UK’s largest union UNISON has stated that it expects the local authority to consult with trade unions about any restructure to protect jobs.
A Derbyshire County Council spokesperson said: “The recognised trade unions, including UNISON, have been regularly briefed about the overall financial position and high-level savings proposals. The council remains committed to continue working both pro-actively and in partnership with them.
“We have provided and will continue to provide regular updates across our workforce, as not all employees are trade union members, and will continue to keep our recognised trade unions updated through our regular meetings as we move through the budget setting cycle.”
The council identified its increased pay award for staff among the pressures that have added to its financial situation, including rising costs for children’s services, adult social care, inflation rates, rising costs of goods and services, interest rates and reduced levels of reserves.
But it is currently working towards introducing saving proposals to balance its £39.5m budget shortfall for 2024-25 after it has already introduced cost-saving measures to address a £33m budget shortfall for the current 2023-24 financial year.
And Cllr Spencer has said the council will do everything it can to avoid compulsory redundancies through retraining, redeployment and leaving empty posts unfilled. According to Cllr Spencer, while at the moment it is too soon to consider job losses, redundancies are something the council cannot rule out in the future.
Outlined budget savings proposals in the report involve reviewing and redesigning some services, with changes likely to affect the elderly, disabled, those with learning difficulties and children.
Others include changes to waste disposal, libraries and heritage, and converting the council’s multi-million pound County Hall building, at Matlock, into a hotel, residential space, and a new office site, along with ceasing the production of the Derbyshire Now magazine and reducing the council’s countryside grounds maintenance budget.
UNISON says reductions in services and jobs are not the only way to make savings and it is urging the council to stick with its pledge to discuss plans to find any possible alternatives.
Cllr Spencer has stated he is interested to hear and consider ideas and alternative plans but he has stressed throughout that whatever the council finally chooses to do, it has a legal obligation to balance its budget which will call for tough decisions.
UNISON says it has identified a number of ways to avoid severe cuts to balance the council’s budget, including finding better ways to provide essential services.
It has claimed that half the beds in Derbyshire County Council’s care homes are empty and it has argued that using them to full capacity would reduce £113m spent by the council on private care places.
The union also says it is raising a ‘trade dispute’ with the council over what it calls the authority’s alleged ‘failure’ to consult over proposed cuts or bring in an independent mediator to find a way forward.
UNISON East Midlands regional organiser Dave Ratchford said: “The council’s claims of a shortfall conveniently ignore a huge increase in spending on the private sector. Building up services in-house would save millions.
“Unions are always a key part of the process when it comes to finding the best way to restructure to protect jobs and ensure residents don’t lose the services they need.
“The council must reconsider so any cuts can be delivered fairly, or even better avoided.”
Derbyshire County Council has highlighted many councils nationwide are experiencing similar external, financial pressures due to claims of under-funding from the government, previous high inflation rates, Covid-19, the cost-of-living crisis and a restriction on how much council tax can be raised.
A council spokesperson added: “No decisions have been made on any of the budget savings proposals put forward but where required and appropriate, collective consultation with employees and recognised trade unions, and public consultation with Derbyshire residents would be carried out.
“Everything will be done to minimise the impact of any service changes on our workforce and Derbyshire residents.”
The council’s cabinet voted in favour of supporting a raft of recommended saving proposals in a new budget report after a cabinet meeting on January 11 to address the forecast £39.5m budget shortfall for the 2024-25 financial year.
The council’s scrutiny committee considered the 2024-25 budget report saving proposals on January 22, and the report is to be considered again by the cabinet on February 1 before finally going to a full council meeting on February 14 prior to being finalised.
This follows ongoing work on a forecast budget overspend of £33m for the 2023-24 financial year, which has already been partly addressed with a number of cost-control measures including stopping all non-essential spending and implementing a hiring freeze.
The council announced in September that it was facing a forecast in-year budget overspend of £46.4m for the 2023-24 financial year, which has been reduced to £33m and which the council has already been working on to reduce by the end of March before the 2024-25 financial year starts on April 1.