Birmingham City Council will have to cut £300,000 from its budget every day of the week for the next four years in order to deliver the Government’s emergency public sector spending clampdown.
The scale of the savings required became clear when the city’s ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition published a consultation paper setting out ideas for slashing £308 million from budgets by 2014.
The document envisages taking about 10,000 people off the local authority payroll – the biggest jobs cull in the council’s history.
Almost 40 per cent of the non-schools workforce will disappear over the next four years, either through redundancies or by being transferred to new arms-length companies where they will be expected to compete with the private sector for business.
It is clear that the council’s political leadership sees Birmingham as a template for the Government’s Big Society vision, with the local authority off-loading responsibility for delivering a wide range of services to the voluntary sector.
As the council slims dramatically, friends, family and neighbours of those in need of help will have to do their bit to provide help.
One of the most radical proposals would see the council ceasing to fund care for all but the most severely disabled adults, saving £69 million. Thousands of people requiring help will be “signposted” to private and voluntary service providers instead.
At a press briefing explaining the proposed changes, council leaders made it clear they backed the Big Society notion.
City chief executive Stephen Hughes said: “In Birmingham we are committed to developing an enabling and empowering council which helps individuals and communities to become increasingly self sufficient and take more responsibility for their communities.”
Mr Hughes denied that the council was “washing its hands” of the most vulnerable people. He said anyone objecting to the proposals would have to identify where they would find more acceptable alternative cuts to meet the Government’s public spending clamp down.
The consultation document states: “We are not proposing to do this just to save money. We are proposing it because we believe a vibrant community is one in which everyone plays their part. This is our version of the Big Society. We believe this will require new ways of working to support local volunteers and the people who organise their work in the community, and potentially provides a valuable option for businesses in fulfilling their corporate social responsibility.”
Opposition Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore (Lab, Ladywood) described the proposals as “horrendous” and said he did not believe assurances that most of the jobs at risk could be found through natural wastage and voluntary redundancy.
However, cabinet finance member Randal Brew spoke of “giving people the opportunity to help themselves”.
Coun Brew (Con, Northfield) added: “We think it is right to take the medicine, get the pain out of the way and look forward to happier times. Our aim is financial stability and providing better quality services on a 21st century basis fit for our citizens.”
The proposals prompted a predictably bitter reaction from the trade unions, who accused the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats of being over eager to farm out services to the voluntary sector.
Unison regional officer Tony Rabaiotti said the Tory-Lib Dem coalition had “the Government of its dreams” and was intent on “carrying out its dirty work”. He said council tax bills should increase to pay for services.
Unison is challenging the council’s assumption that voluntary organisations will be willing to provide social services.
Mr Rabaiotti said: “This is the council’s default position, but there is no evidence that the voluntary sector can step in and provide the equivalent or better level of services.”
The GMB union described the proposals as “dismantling of public services in Birmingham as we know them”.
Spokesman Roger Jenkins said: “The council needs to be frank with the citizens of Birmingham and make clear what services are going to go entirely. It is the most vulnerable people that will be worst affected.”
Under the proposals, back office functions, the council’s pen-pushing administrative arm, will be cut by 30 per cent to save £103 million.
More than 7,000 posts across the non-schools workforce will be lost by 2014. But when part-timers are taken into account, the jobs cull is likely to hit about 10,000 people currently employed by the council. Just over a third of the posts will be transferred to mutual societies or co-operatives set up by former council workers.
The council insists it wants to hear opinions about its plans from all people in Birmingham.
The paper describes growing demand for adult social services as unaffordable.
It adds: “We accept the argument that the current system isn’t sustainable and we need to develop new approaches including giving people and communities more power and control.
“We accept the challenge that the care system should show more trust in people and communities.”
Additional money will be ploughed into preventative work, helping older people to stay in their own homes.
Children’s social services will be refocused to concentrate on helping families showing the first signs of vulnerability, hoping to save money by preventing young people from being taken into care.