A £15m package of cuts and savings have been signed off by Oxfordshire’s county council.

Councillors voted by a slim majority of 32-30 in favour of a new ‘extraordinary’ budget at its meeting today (September 8).

The new budget includes delays to large council projects, leaving some job vacancies unfilled, and savings from not having to light and heat offices during the lockdown.

There was huge opposition from the council’s Liberal Democrat and Labour groups, who were worried about the effects the cuts would have on plans to revive a council-run youth service.

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But the council’s Conservative leader Ian Hudspeth warned members that if they did not accept the cuts now, then next year’s budget would need to absorb the cost, at which point it could be much worse.

Mr Hudspeth said: "This is about making sure we have the financial stability to carry on through this year and in particular, start the budget setting process for next year. We cannot wait until February and then start making cuts."

He added he would continue to use his role as a spokesman for all English councils at the Local Government Association to lobby for more funding from central Government.

The council is currently facing a funding hole of approximately £20 million.

Oxford Mail:

Ian Hudspeth

It has an overall budget shortfall for the 2019-20 financial year of £51m, according to forecasts from its finance officers.

But the Government has coughed up £30m worth of grant funding to help pay back some of the extra money it has spent throughout the pandemic so far.

And a further £4m is expected from a Government fund to help the council recover lost income from car park tickets, fees, and fines.

The county council’s role includes looking after roads, libraries, overseeing schools, and social services for both children and adults.

There was great concern among both Labour and Lib Dem councillors about plans to decrease the funding for a study into restarting a council-run youth service in Oxfordshire.

The youth service, including clubs and support staff, was cut during the austerity era brought in by the Coalition Government in the early 2010s.

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It has since been propped up since by charities and volunteers.

The budget for a study into the new youth service set in February was £200,000; but this has now been reduced to £25,000.

Lib Dem councillor Emily Smith warned that voluntary youth service groups were facing ‘increasing waiting lists’ for young people who needed help and questioned whether the new budget would help to provide the service revival the council had already agreed.

She added: “Our taxpayers deserve a properly funded assessment of the service.”

Labour councillor Glynis Philips described the £25k funding as an assessment being done ‘on the cheap’ as she asked why it had been cut.

But the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, Steve Harrod, echoed comments similar to those he had made at earlier meetings, as he said the previously agreed budget was not needed to carry out a full assessment of restarting youth services.

There were also concerns among some opposition councillors about the level of detail provided in the budget papers.

In a written question, Labour councillor Laura Price asked how many full-time equivalent jobs would be lost as a result of the cuts.

Deputy council leader Judith Heathcoat said in her reply: “As a result of the in-year budget savings proposals no posts are being lost from the establishment. We have a mixture of delayed and held recruitment.”

But Lib Dem councillor Richard Webber argued this was ‘effectively reducing staff’.

Oxford Mail:

Richard Webber

He added: “The problem with that is I can already tell you in my own patch I have seen some sense of distinct officer shortage.

“Officers do a fantastic job but there are way too few of them to do a job properly.”

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Cabinet member for transport, Yvonne Constance, set out to dispel the idea that the cuts were being imposed on staff.

She said: “The revisions were proposals made by officers to us.”

All councils in the UK have a duty to balance their books each year, and Oxfordshire is not alone in making cuts within the financial year.

The district councils within Oxfordshire are also facing budget shortfalls as a result of Covid 19.

So far only Cherwell District Council, which shares staff with Oxfordshire County Council, has made budget cuts similar to those agreed by the county.