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West Somerset on financial brink

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The leader of England’s smallest district council has warned that it may not be financially viable in a year’s time.

West Somerset DC leader Tim Taylor (Con) has requested a meeting with ministers in an attempt to get extra financial support and ensure its survival.

The council had budgeted for a 28% cut to the revenue support grant over four years, but Cllr Taylor said reductions in other grants and items such as retained council tax producing a much bigger cut, starting with a 13.8% reduction next year.

“We have clearly not budgeted for that size of cut,” he said, adding officers and councillors had returned to the drawing board. “We are struggling to get a balanced revenue budget,” he added.

The council is considering redundancies of up to 20 of its 93 staff as one way to save money, but Cllr Taylor said the long-serving employment records of most of its staff meant the cost could reach £2m.

The council has a very low council tax base, with a retention rate 26% below the district average, and no reserves and Cllr Taylor said a redundancy programme would make the revenue budget “negative and illegal”.

Councils can also request permission to use capital funding, but Cllr Taylor said the council could not afford to do that because its asset base was already equalled by its existing debt of £3.5m.

“We can’t go on borrowing, borrowing and borrowing,” he said. “In a year or two I believe we will be financially unviable.”

Cllr Taylor wrote to communities secretary Eric Pickles six weeks ago to issue the same warning.

“I am afraid we had a rather brief reply from someone saying that he would not meet us, but saying that [local government minister] Bob Neill might and we are following that up urgently,” he said.

Earlier this year, a report into the council’s finances by former Westminster City Council chief executive Bill Roots set out how the council was disadvantaged by its tiny size.

Senior officers, responsible for the council since the chief executive and deputy chief left in 2007, have since met with civil servants to discuss the options but Cllr Taylor said that avenue had been exhausted.

“It was almost more than they could deal with,” he said. “We now have to look at the political route.”

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