‘UNPRECEDENTED’ cuts in services, a 10 per cent hike in council tax bills, and massive job cuts have been proposed by near-bankrupt Somerset Council to try to bridge a £100 million budget gap next month.

The Liberal Democrat-run council declared a financial emergency just six months after it was formed in 2023 by merging Somerset’s county and four district authorities.

It warned it would have to issue a ‘Section 114’ notice - effectively a declaration of bankruptcy - if it could not balance its budget for the next financial year by February.

Now, it is facing ‘crunch time’ with recommendations on balancing the budget going to an executive meeting on Monday, January 15, before councillors vote on them on February 20.

Council leader Cllr Bill Revans, said the authority had been left with no option but to consider ‘unprecedented’ and ‘heart-breaking’ steps, including reductions to services, a 10 per cent increase in council tax, and ‘re-sizing’ to make it a smaller organisation.

However, the scale of job losses - expected to be about 40 per cent, not including those in schools as they are separately managed – was not included in the report and will instead go to an executive meeting on February 7.

The council is also proposing to take nearly £37 million from its reserves to help balance the books.

But the final balancing of the budget was left in the hands of the Government, as its permission was needed for a 10 per cent council tax increase, which was double the maximum currently allowed.

And even if the council introduced all of its proposed savings and was allowed to put up council tax bills, it would still be £20.8 million short.

So, it is also asking the Government to allow it to ‘capitalise’ the shortfall, which would mean the council could use money from selling assets to pay for day to day running costs, or borrow money to cover it.

Head of strategic finance Emily Collacott said if the Government did not approve the two requests it would be forced to issue the ‘Section 114’ notice.

In the meantime, the range of proposed service cuts included:

  • Stopping mobile libraries

  • Cutting public library opening times by 10 per cent

  • Closing all council-owned public toilets

  • Closing five recycling centres

  • Turning off CCTV cameras

  • Reviewing bus service subsidies

  • Reducing routine highway maintenance such as emptying gullies or cutting grass

  • Stopping support for tourism services

  • Increasing car parking fees and charges for a host of services

Ms Collacott said: “The very stark and challenging financial position the council faces is well documented, with the cost of delivering services increasing significantly faster than the income it receives, particularly in relation to social care.

“It is widely recognised that the funding mechanism for local government is broken and needs urgent reform.

“The council cannot continue to provide and operate services in their current format and rapid, radical, change is required if it is to become financially sustainable.

“To address this, the council is developing a transformation programme to deliver our vision for the council to be a smaller, leaner council, employing fewer people, requiring fewer offices, focusing only on the unique value the authority can provide.”

Ms Collacott said detailed work was underway on how to make the council ‘smaller and leaner’ with fewer staff but still able to deliver services.

She said: “This is a key part of the council becoming financially sustainable and failure to deliver on this will mean that Somerset Council is no longer financially viable.”

Cllr Revans said: “This is what a 'financial emergency' looks like.

“No decisions have been made, but all of these savings and the 10 per cent council tax increase are unprecedented actions that have to be considered if we are to steer this authority through a period of extreme pressure.

“Officers have done as we asked and left no stone unturned.

“The result is a set of options, many of which are very unpalatable, some heart-breaking, that nobody would want to take forward.

“Our council tax is one of the lowest among the unitary councils which have responsibility for care and we find ourselves having to consider putting it up by 10 per cent.

“That equates to an extra £3.15 per week for the average household to limit the impact on core services, many of which support the most vulnerable.”

Cllr Revans urged the public to take part in the authority’s budget consultation which runs until January 22 to help influence decisions by councillors.