THE swingeing budget £12.5m budget cuts proposed by Darlington Borough Council have overwhelmingly been recommended for approval - although a final decision by the full council is yet to be made.

The authority has largely stuck by its massive package of cuts - despite widespread protests and opposition and suggestions of alternative money saving ideas to maintain services such as the libraries.

No department will escape unscathed with cuts to social services, health, libraries, street cleaning, children's centres, Christmas lights, flower displays and grass cutting.

However, Darlington for Culture - which has been fighting to save the library and arts provision - branded the final set of budget proposals "disappointing" and said its campaign was not over - urging the public to continue to protest and make their feelings known.

Recommended cuts include:

  • Closing the libraries at Cockerton and Crown Street and scrapping the mobile service and relocating services to the Dolphin leisure centre - resulting in 25 redundancies of library staff. The closure of Cockerton library is deferred until March 31
  • A total of 111 redundancies involving council employees plus other possible job losses among private sector companies which will no longer be used or cut by the council
  • Council tax suggested to be set at 3.99 per cent for the next three financial years
  • Cuts to grass cutting - grass will only be cut every 39 days instead of 12 to 15 days - resulting in seven redundancies for parks staff 
  • Reductions to street cleaning. Staffing cut by 39 per cent from 31 to 19. Reduction in number of litter bins and frequency of emptying, litter picking, back lane cleansing. Resonse times to litter and fly tipping will reduce and "non core areas will deteriorate". This will result in 13 job losses
  • The town centre water feature will be switched off
  • No overall support to groups involved in parks and countryside management
  • Officer support to street champions and litter picks will stop
  • A total of £90,000 from a current grants of £195,000 to be reduced or cease to Age UK, Citizens Advice Bureau, Darlington Against Disability, First Stop, Groundwork, Volunteer Bureau, Gay Advice Darlington and CDCD. From 2017/18 there will be just over £15,000 to share out among such organisations
  • Financial contributions to the Homlessness and Substance Misuse Service will end; disposal of the office of the Drug, Alcohol & Tobacco Commissioning team with four job losses; no financial contribution to BALANCE, the regional office for the reduction of alcohol harm or Fresh, which tackles smoking related diseases. Budget for sexual health services GUM clinic cut.
  • Replacement of "face to face" support in adult social care services with such alternatives such as information and advice, more community support and better use of technology

A council spokesman said the final set of budget proposals were as a result of lower funding from Central Government - which means the authourity must cut £10m from its budget by 2020, on top of £37.3m cuts made since 2010.

The proposals will be discussed at a Special Cabinet meeting at 5pm on Wednesday June 22 before all councillors have the chance to vote on them as a Special Council meeting on Wednesday, June 29.

Details of how members of the public can register to speak at the Special Cabinet and Special Council meetings will be published on the council's website.

The council says it has included more than 15 changes to the original budget cuts proposal published in February following public consultation.

However, this does not include the campaign organised by The Northern Echo to save the current library service which attracted more than 7,000 names to its petition. 

Changes to the original budget proposals include:

  • Setting aside a one-off £100,000 to reduce the impact of cuts on vulnerable groups
  • Blue Badge holders can transfer tickets between car parks
  • Extra £30,000 for Crisis Support social fund which helps support vulnerable adults
  • Cuts to bus pass scheme for companions of disabled people deferred 
  • Cuts to support for disabled children aged up to three deferred
  • Council and Darlington Clinical Commissioning Group to work together to create a targeted fund supporting voluntary sector activity - money matched by County Durham Community Foundation. The amount of the found is yet to be specified
  • The closure of Cockerton Library will be deferred until March 31 2017 to allow Darlington for Culture time to develop a business case for taking over its running as a community asset
  • Deferring closure of The Bridge arts centre until March 31, 2017 - again to allow time for a business case to be developed
  • Creation of an Environmental Enforcement team within the Street Scene budget. Private sector enforcement options will be explored plus more volunteer imput
  • External funding secured for cycle and pedestrian training and elements of Sustainable Transport programme

Other proposals remain unchanged - including the highly controversial proposal to move library services to the Dolphin Centre.

The council spokesman said: "Officers and councillors held many meetings to explore potential alternatives. However, having carefully considered all responses to the consultation and the business plan submitted by Darlington for Culture, the cabinet remains of the view that it is in the best long-term interests of the library service to go ahead with the relocation."

Council leader Bill Dixon said: "We recognise and acknowledge the strength of public feeling around the library proposals, which was demonstrrated during the consultation.

"We are grateful for all the comments received and the alternative proposals that have been put forward.

"We have listened to and considered what people have had to say, but in the interests of providing a sustainable library service, as well as securing the long-term future of the Dolphin Centre, the recommendation is that councillors support the proposal to move the library from Crown Street."

Volunteers from Darlington for Culture (DfC) had submitted fully costed plans to secure the future of both Crown Street and Cockerton libraries without the need for major cutbacks.

This involved creating an independent Charitable Incorporated Organisation to run both buildings in partnership with the council and the community.

The authority said the closures will save more than £300,000 a year, but campaigners claimed that hidden costs meant the actual savings would be just £102,000.

However, Darlington for Culture reacted with disappointment to the news today over officers’ recommendations on the future of Darlington’s libraries.

John Dean, Chair of DfC, said: “The council response on Crown Street is very disappointing.

"The time has come for imaginative thinking and shoehorning Crown Street Library into the Dolphin Centre is not imaginative.

"Our proposal was costed out and lays the foundations for further discussions during which the community and the council could forge a working relationship for the good of the town.

“We are not convinced that the council’s financial arguments in favour of moving to the Dolphin Centre offer much more benefit than staying at Crown Street and increasing its revenue from activities including room hire and events.

“On the positive side, we welcome the granting of extra time to pull together rescue plans for Cockerton Library and The Bridge.

“Darlington for Culture and the organisations with whom it has worked, including the steering group and the newly-formed Friends of Darlington Libraries, will now consider our next move then announce our next steps.

"The campaign to block the move of Crown Street is not over, the anger that drove almost a thousand people to protest outside Crown Street Library in March has not dissipated.

“We urge people to leave councillors in no doubt that they should oppose the council officers’ plans for Crown Street when they come to vote on them at the end of the month. We will be doing the same and will publish a more detailed response in due course.”

A response by Unison to the consultation said: "It appears that the proposal to close Cockerton library, stop the mobile library and switch Crown Street library to the Dolphin Centre has got more holes than substance.

"It would necessitate moving the Registrars out of the Dolphin Centre, significantly downsizing the library offer, relocating the archive and losing expert and experienced staff. We have serious reservations as to whether this merry-go-round of services would save any money; in fact we believe it would cost the council dear."

Cllr Dixon added: "I would also like to reassure the public that there is no question whatsoever of the Crown Street building being demolished. Its status as a listed building means there is no chance of any future owner being able to knock it down and start again.

"At the heart of these budget proposals has been our unshakeable desire to minimise the impact of the cuts we are being forced to make on the most vulnerable members of our society.

"I would like to thank everyone who took part in the consultation process, which was unprecedented in the history of this authority. I am not aware of such an extensive process anywhere else.

"The public and our partners have shown during the consultation that they understand that we have some very difficult decisions to make while setting this budget, following significant reductions in our funding and increase in demand for our services."