SOMERSET Council is proposing cutbacks to recycling centres, public toilets, and a 10 per cent rise in council tax to balance the books as it faces a financial emergency.

The council is looking to set a balanced budget by saving on several services which could also include the closure of some libraries, increased car parking charges, turning off CCTV cameras, and laying off large numbers of its staff.

Details set to be considered on January 15 show Somerset Council, which declared a “financial emergency” last year, is facing cost pressures of £108.5 million in 2024-25, an annual increase of 20 per cent.

This "unprecedented position" is due to the rising costs faced by local authorities across the country, largely driven by costs of social care services - which could be cut too - Somerset Council said.

Bill Revans, the council’s Liberal Democrat leader, described the saving measures as “heartbreaking".

Somerset County Gazette: Bill Revans, leader of the councilBill Revans, leader of the council (Image: Somerset Council)

A Somerset Council spokesperson said: “We are in an unprecedented position due to the rising costs faced by local authorities across the country, largely driven by costs of social care.

“Councils up and down the country are in a similar position.

“We face a budget gap of £100m and if we cannot set a balanced budget, Government commissioners will do it for us, without the local knowledge or concern about the longer term.

“We have a budget gap of £100m for the next financial year and the plan is to use reserves, significant savings, a council tax increase of 10 per cent, and the sale of council assets to set a balanced budget.

“The papers detail options for savings of £35m to help bridge that gap. Of these, £24m are new.

“Consultation will be carried out on specific options where necessary if that option is agreed by the Full Council on 20 February.

“At its meeting on January 15, the executive will ask the Government for flexibility to increase council tax by more than the referendum limit to 10 per cent (including the 2 per cent social care precept).

“This would generate an extra £17.1m and raise the average band D Council Tax bill to £1,810 – still below the unitary average of £1,815.

“The council also plans to use £36.8m of reserves (a council’s equivalent of savings – money for emergencies which can only be used once).

“The remaining gap of around £20m would need to be covered by asking Government for a ‘capitalisation direction’.

“This would allow the council to borrow money or sell assets to fund day-to-day running costs.

“No decisions (on savings options or council tax etc) have been made and will not be until the budget is set at full council on February 20.”

In response to the savings options published on January 5 the lead member for Communities, Housing & Culture, Councillor Federica Smith-Roberts, said: “Community safety is something I value for our residents and businesses, so I’m really concerned that we’re having to look at turning off CCTV cameras to balance next year’s budget.

“We’re exploring all options open to us and will be seeking partnership working with our parish, town and city councils alongside seeing what funding the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner and other partners can provide.

“Ultimately though there is the potential that we will have no choice but to switch them off if no alternative is available.

The hard truth is that the Local Government funding formula is broken and without help from the Conservative Government in Westminster we are forced to consider the unthinkable.

“I ask that residents make their voices heard and in particular ask their local MPs to support Somerset and to be vocal on the support needed for services such as CCTV that are not a statutory service but that residents require through additional funding.”

In response to suggestions to save money in the council’s Highways Department the lead member for Highways and Digital, Councillor Richard Wilkins, said: “Given the recent heavy rain and flooding seen across Somerset, I have no doubt that residents will be alarmed to read of the suggestion of reduce the frequency of drain and gulley clearing we undertake.”

“I believe there is a strong case for protecting this service to prevent flooding, and I will be making that case to colleagues over the coming weeks.

“I will be exploring every opportunity to secure funding so that the great work undertaken by the highways team can continue.”

“However, Local Government funding is being stretched to breaking point and we are having to consider making extremely difficult choices.”

Talking about the possible closure of five household recycling centres the lead member for Environment, Councillor Dixie Darch, said: “Here in Somerset we are proud of how we handle household waste. After all, we are ranked 28th out of 335 Local Authorities for our recycling rate (56.2 per cent).”

“However, household recycling centres are expensive to run and we’re having to consider closing those that are most expensive.”

“It’s important to note that these are ideas we have been presented with for consideration and not decisions, but the sad truth is that we are having to find savings in all areas.”

Lead member for Transformation, Councillor Theo Butt Philip, said: “This is an unprecedented situation, one which none of us would have wished for.

“Our priority now has to be putting Somerset Council into a sustainable financial position, whilst also protecting the services that our communities care about the most.”

“We will work with our partners, such as businesses, other public sector agencies, our city, town and parish councils, and the voluntary sector to seek out alternative methods of delivering and funding those services which are most important to the people of Somerset.”

Visit Somerset

The papers released by Somerset Council to bridge a £100m funding gap have been described as a “manifesto for the mutilation of joy” by the chair of Visit Somerset.

Giles Adams, representing the official tourist organisation for the county, was speaking in response to the papers that contain a comprehensive list of financial cuts across many departments, including the visitor economy.

“Somerset Council have a difficult job which has arisen from years of poor decisions at all political levels.

“The music has stopped and the current administration is the ones on deck who are having to take surgical decisions that call into question our whole way of life for residents and the quality of experiences for visitors.”

He added: “However, the planned cuts to tourism and visitor services are ill-advised, particularly given the economic benefit this sector brings that is worth £1.3bn of the Somerset economy and provides over 24,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

“When we were presented with the original alternative proposals for the formation of a unitary council, I commented that whilst supposed amalgamation savings were apparently an opportunity, they should not come at the expense of the everyday joy that residents have in their lives as part of communities, arts, culture and recreation.

“This set of proposals that misguidedly includes amongst others the closure of visitor information centres, town centre security cameras and public conveniences just reads as though we should not go out, not spend on recreation, not stimulate economic activity but remain at home and pay our increased council tax.”

“It is a misconception that Visit Somerset owns tourist information centres. They are an integral part of stimulating visitor spend.

“For example, the loss of Cartgate Information Centre coincides with the dualling of the A303 at Sparkford so we give the impression now that those traveling west are simply not required in Somerset and can be speedily conveyed onwards to Devon and Cornwall and spend their money there.”

Public meetings

All meetings are public, and residents are encouraged to attend.

• 15 January. Meeting of Executive Committee will discuss Budget Update report, including savings proposed approach to bridging the funding gap.

• 22 January. Budget consultation closes (that’s our online consultation Have your say on council budget setting ( ) • 25 January. Audit Committee to discuss technical budget papers.

• 1 February. Meeting of the Corporate and Resources Scrutiny Committee. Due to discuss Budget Update report, including savings proposals.

• 7 February. Meeting of Executive Committee to consider feedback from Scrutiny Committee and results of budget consultation before recommending a budget for decision at full council.

20 February. The full council meets to agree on a final budget for 2024/25.