Wokingham Borough Council|

Taken from Wokingham Borough Council News Centre.

Residents’ views sought on proposals that would help the council look after those who rely on it most.

The council is grappling with the ongoing triple threat of high inflation, which leads to vastly increased costs, as well as growing needs among the community and a long history of inadequate funding from the Government.

With this in mind, it is launching a consultation on how it can make necessary savings in areas like street cleaning, grass cutting, litter bins and other services which will help it keep its finances stable and continue looking after those who rely on it most.

Despite the unprecedented challenges it faces, it is committed to protecting services such as adult and children’s social care, which together make up about 60 per cent of its council tax spend.

It was in light of these commitments that it introduced recent changes such as taping off some litter bins and cutting some grass less often, with further changes also planned.

However, it accepts that all the correct processes were not followed and is now taking this through the formal decision-making route. This includes a public consultation, which is open until Sunday, 10 September.

Planning changes to minimise impact

The consultation includes about 150 litter bins that could be removed out of about 1,100 in the borough.

These bins have been chosen because the council believes their removal would have the least impact. However, the consultation will offer the chance to comment on the selection and suggest other bins that could be removed instead.

Other ideas include reducing the amount of weed spraying that is carried out, clearing up around bottle banks less often and spending less on town centre mechanical street sweeping. The council needs to save £600,000 over three years with the changes.

Grass cutting could be reduced from about six times a year to four for verges and smaller spaces, with grass kept appropriately short in play areas, sports pitches and where motorists need visibility.

The council proposes letting grass grow long in more places and cutting annually, which will provide habitats for local wildlife and help address the climate emergency. These changes would save a further £100,000 per year.

No other way, but some room for revision

Cllr Stephen Conway, the leader of the council, said: “We can’t overstate the severity of the risk to our finances, nor the dire need to make efficiencies. Other councils have effectively gone bankrupt in this harsh climate and we mustn’t let that happen here.

Our consultation is a genuine listening exercise and we urge people to take part, although we’re being honest from the outset – we can look at alternative ideas, but these savings must and will be made somehow.

“We’ve apologised for not following procedure, which stemmed from the urgency of the situation and our desire to ensure that no-one needing help is left behind when they’re struggling, either financially or with daily living tasks.

“As circumstances force us to make tough decisions, we promise we’ll always put people first. After all, there’s no real choice between letting grass grow a little longer or leaving vulnerable people to fend for themselves.

“While news like this is never welcome, and we’re sad to have reached this point, it is necessary considering an aging population, the cost of living crisis and growing numbers of children with special educational needs and disabilities.”

Take part in consultation

The final proposals will be considered by the council’s Community and Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 3 October with an executive decision expected on 26 October. Following its earlier decision, the council is now working with contractors to empty as many bins as possible.

Under pressure from all angles

Wokingham Borough Council gets the least Government funding per resident of all unitary authorities in the country, an average of £30 million per year less than others, because it is seen as having low deprivation.

This means council tax payments make a proportionally higher contribution towards services than anywhere else. With running costs and capital project costs both rising, and council tax rates capped below inflation, the only option is finding savings.

The council has successfully lowered costs by almost £29 million over the past six years and shrunk its overall budget by 34 per cent in real terms since 2010/11, but the pressures continue to grow on many fronts including energy costs, significant inflation on contract costs and providing statutory care.

In other places where councils have effectively gone bankrupt, council tax has risen by up to 15 per cent with services stripped to the bare minimum.

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