PROTESTERS who gathered outside Sunderland civic centre have said £35million budget cuts will be the final nail in the coffin for city residents.
A group from North East People’s Assembly met to lobby councillors ahead of the annual budget-setting meeting yesterday, during which the multimillion pound cuts for 2014/15 were given the green light.
Carrying placards in the shape of coffin lids to signify each public service, which they say will suffer because of the cuts, the group handed out leaflets.
Among the protesters was Sunderland University chaplain Chris Howson.
He said: “The coffins represents the killing off of council services. We wanted to make a point as the councillors went in.”
Despite huge division in political opinion, all 53 councillors who attended the meeting – just over a third of the 74 current elected members – voted through the motion presented by council leader Paul Watson.
One of them, Southwick Councillor Rosalind Copeland, attended the lobby in Park Lane before the meeting, supporting the demonstrators. Pointing out that she was not there to criticise the council, but to defend what it is legally-bound to do in the face of Government cuts, Coun Copeland said: “I am here to defend my council and the decision my council will have to make – the agony we are facing as councillors.
“As council members, we are having to do things we don’t want to do. The Coalition is pilfering the working class. It is not this Labour group at fault.”
To streamline finances, the council is focusing on three approaches; recommissioning services, reprioritising spend and exploring alternative ways to deliver services.
This includes reviewing car-parking charges, pest control and burial and cremation fees as well as reducing the authority’s fleet of bin wagons and the introduction of a four-day working week for recycling staff.
At the meeting, Coun Watson said: “Two years ago I said we were experiencing the most difficult economic period in living memory. This position has not changed. Even more pressure has been put on the council, with further reductions in public sector finances.”
He added: “The council has risen to the challenge and has managed these considerable risks.”
Opposition leader Robert Oliver agreed that the budget was “realistic”, and that while the Tory group welcomed the council tax freeze for a fourth consecutive year, the Labour administration should not complain about cuts, which he claimed had arisen as a result of lost revenue.
He said: “The workforce has been reduced and services have improved so it’s a case of go figure.
“The leader of the council has given us a slightly two-faced speech. You can’t complain about cuts which could have been avoided if there had been a council tax increase.”
On top of the £35million slashed from the coming year’s budget, the authority will have to find an identical amount to cut the following year.
Coun Watson says some of the savings are being mitigated by “hundreds of milllions” worth of capital investment planned until 2018.