Elderly and disabled to bear the brunt of cuts

`This is the most painful budget we've had in my eight years here'
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The Independent Online
Elderly and disabled people in North Yorkshire will have to pay more for their home helps and the price of an orange "disabled" sticker for motorists is going from zero to £2, writes Nicholas Schoon.

The county council's social services committee is having to cut £1.2m, at a time when the demands on the department are rising. One example: the end of the Cold War is bringing thousands of army families back from Germany to Catterick Garrison and making many service personnel redundant.

Attention has focused on education, the county's biggest and most expensive function. Before the Cabinet agreed on a 2.7 per cent pay rise for teachers, adult education was being cut and the price of school dinners raised by 10 per cent, but now teacher redundancies also seem inevitable, according to one senior official.

The axe is also swinging in social services, the next most important department. Building and maintenance projects are being cancelled, 18 administrative jobs cut and the minimum home-help fee, for people on state benefits, raised from £2.60 to £2.90 a day.

The cuts North Yorkshire must make at its final budget-setting meeting on Wednesday are typical of those being made by dozens of county and metropolitan councils. One of the area's MPs is the Local Government Minister, David Curry, the man charged with justifying why councils must slash their budgets.

A deputation from North Yorkshire came to Whitehall to see him in November, one of 90 council delegations which have been in over the past few months to plead for more money. The visit produced no extra cash.

This coming financial year, the Government will allow the council to increase its spending by three quarters of one per cent; any more and it faces the spectacular loss of grant known as capping.

The result, once rising numbers of pupils and inflation are taken into account, is a £15m shortfall, some 4 per cent of the council's budget. About £6m can come from reserves with the rest from service and job cuts and increased charges.

"This is the most painful budget we've had in my eight years here," said John Moore, deputy treasurer. "It will inevitably lead to redundancies and I hope they can all be voluntary."

The stream of council delegations to Whitehall reflects that four fifths of council income is now under central government control. The grant for each council is assessed according to a couple of dozen criteria - such things as population, deprivation, the proportion of elderly people, and the local cost of living.

Many councils feel there is some particular flaw in the assessment procedures which means it is treated unfairly. North Yorkshire says the South-east receives unfair advantages and complains that its large rural hinterland, in which services are more expensive to provide than in the cities, is not properly compensated for. The assessment procedures are frequently altered to meet such criticisms, changing the grants nationwide and adding another element of uncertainty to financial planning.