Birmingham City Council is seeking to defuse trade union claims that the local authority’s severe financial difficulties are bound to result in savage cuts to jobs and services.
Council leader Mike Whitby said he was confident that most of the 2,000 council posts set to disappear in 2010-11 could be axed without compulsory redundancies.
Coun Whitby delivered the annual budget and promised to be “open and honest” with the council workforce.
Although he admitted the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition faced challenging times given the certainty of tough government spending cuts.
The city’s council tax will rise by 1.9 per cent, the equivalent to 40p a week for the fifth successive year.
As he was speaking, hundreds of council workers braved icy temperatures and snow storms to demonstrate outside the Council House in Victoria Square.
They fear a £75 million package of efficiency savings proposed by Coun Whitby cannot be achieved without slashing services.
Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) promised to use early retirement, voluntary redundancy, get rid of expensive agency staff and a freeze on vacant posts to make sure that the council’s non-schools workforce continued to reduce from about 25,000 full time posts.
He pointed out that 1,353 jobs went last year, with only a handful of compulsory redundancies.
Coun Whitby added: “We remain true to our principles and despite the difficulties intend to operate within the strict fiscal discipline we have established, set challenging targets to improve the quality of life in our city and continue our journey towards excellence.
“We strive to seek a balance between low taxation, service provision and competency.”
His remarks sparked a bitter row about the true financial position of the council. The latest projections for 2009-10 suggest a budget overspend of about £14 million. But the true figure is closer to a “£50 million black hole”, according to Labour.
Since taking control of the council in 2004, the coalition has found £203 million in efficiency savings.
But most of that has been ploughed back into front line services, with £134 million going to prop up social services.
Opposition Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore said the budget was “full of unfairness” and would hit the poorest people in the pocket.
Sir Albert (Lab Ladywood) accused the coalition of “robbing the unemployed” by hijacking £14 million from the government’s Working Neighbourhoods Fund to bail out Birmingham’s overspending social services.
He said it was unlikely that £75 million of efficiency savings could be found without slashing services.
Sir Albert accused council leaders of planning service cuts in order to pay the borrowing costs for “prestige projects” such as the £183 million Library of Birmingham in order to “massage the egos of certain politicians”.
He added: “This is a smoke and mirrors budget, and there is more trickery-pockery yet to come.”
The demonstration outside the Council House, organised jointly by the trade unions Unison and Unite, featured speeches from Roger McKenzie, regional secretary of Unison in the West Midlands, and Jack Dromey, deputy general of Unite.
Mr McKenzie said: “This is about them (the city council) deciding they don’t want to deliver public services anymore.
“What they are about is commissions and privatisation and we have to say no more.”
Among the protestors was Dave Robinson from Kings Norton.
The 48-year-old, who has worked in the education department for 18 years, said: “The good work we’ve done to keep these services going and this is how they treat us. I think it’s terrible.”
Another protester, Caroline Johnson from Handsworth, works in the adults and communities directorate.
“Most of the employees have given the best years of their lives to the council,” she said.
“Yet most of us are under threat.”