Councils set to freeze services as they reach 'tipping point'


Councils are starting to freeze non-essential services as they reach a "tipping point" ahead of an expected fresh round of deep spending cuts, new research has revealed.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been axed in recent years, almost 500 libraries have closed, the backlog of road repairs has soared and a range of services have been cut back.

A survey by the Press Association of local authorities across Britain shows the scale of cuts they are already facing, amid warnings of the impact on services ranging from caring for the elderly and protecting children to bin collection, pothole repairs, street lighting, social work, museums and maintaining parks.

In many cases, residents are now being consulted on which services they want protected as councils prepare to make decisions on where the spending axe needs to fall next.

Many authorities are waiting until the Chancellor delivers the Comprehensive Spending Review on Wednesday, which is expected to include huge cuts in public spending.

Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association, told the Press Association: "With councils already struggling to keep services running and facing almost £10 billion in additional cost pressures by the end of the decade, it is clear that a similar funding cut again would mean that some councils would have to review how they deliver their statutory duties.

"The ability of councils to provide many of the services people take for granted, like clean and well-lit streets, maintained parks and access to leisure centres, could become significantly impacted.

"Vital services, such as caring for the elderly, protecting children, collecting bins, filling potholes and maintaining our parks and green spaces, could struggle to continue at current levels."

Proposals already announced by councils include increased charges for burials and cremations, primary school swimming lessons, sharing head teachers in small schools and increasing council tax

The GMB and Unison say thousands of jobs have been cut or are threatened, with groups of staff now being offered voluntary redundancy as councils try to balance the books.

Cheltenham Borough Council said it was addressing funding cuts by sharing services with other neighbouring councils and driving business growth to increase business rates income.

But John Rawson, cabinet member for finance, said: " I am concerned that the leading members of the Government do not really understand the realities of local government and may land us with impossible challenges in future years.

"Efficiency savings cannot go on forever. It is easy for ministers to score easy points by holding forth about town hall red tape, without recognising that local councils run services that are very important to people's wellbeing."

A spokesman for Newcastle Upon Tyne Council said the authority had taken steps such as closing libraries and leisure centres, some of which were now being run by volunteers or trusts.

But he warned: "We're getting to the point that it's children and adult social care that's at risk. These are the areas, because they are the biggest part of our spend, there's nowhere else to turn to find that level of spending savings."

The Press Association survey revealed the level of savings councils are already grappling with, and the impact on services, even before the Chancellor's announcement on Wednesday.

:: Stirling Council said it faces a "significant financial challenge", with spending having to be cut by £25 million over the next five years.

:: South Ayrshire Council has to find £20 million of savings by 2018/19 and is seeking views on sharing head teachers in small schools and increasing charges for burials and cremations.

:: West Berkshire Council has to find £20 million of savings over the next four years, including £11 million in 2016/17.

:: Flintshire County Council said the forecast between now and 2018 was "bleak" as it faced a budget gap of £53 million. More than £18 million has already been saved towards this target, but the council said a "serious tipping point" had been reached.

 :: Cllr Anthony Hunt of Torfaen Council, which has a budget shortfall of £26 million over the next three years, said: "This situation is the unfortunate result of austerity from the UK government."

:: Wakefield Council has already made savings of £119 million over the past five years and believes it will have to save another £66 million by 2019/20, saying cuts and changes to services were now "inevitable".

:: East Renfrewshire Council has a £20 million budget gap over the next three years, saying savings of just over half had been identified without hitting frontline services, but proposals could lead to up to 200 job losses.

:: Stockton-on-Tees Council has to make savings of £17 million over the next three years on top of £34 million in the last five years, describing it as "unprecedented financial challenge".

:: Cambridgeshire County Council has to find £100 million worth of savings over the next five years, saying it was already making "hard choices" such as turning off street lights.

:: Pembrokeshire Council will consult with residents over how to save £50 million by the end of the decade, having already increased car parking and leisure centre charges, closing some toilets and changing from weekly to fortnightly bin collections.

:: Portsmouth City Council has to find £31 million in savings over the next three years and was told in a survey that residents backed reducing funding for community centres and quit-smoking services as well as reduced winter cleaning of the seafront.

:: Worcestershire City Council is aiming to outsource bin collections, street cleaning and grounds maintenance in 2017 to reduce spending by £500,000, as well as outsourcing at sports and leisure centres from next year to save another £300,000.

:: Poole Council has an estimated funding gap of £15.9 million up to 2019/20 and is proposing longer times between refuse collections.

The LGA said that between 2010/11 and 2013/14, council spending on arts and museums in England and Wales fell by 11%, libraries 14%, parks 10%, roads maintenance 17%, sports and leisure 15%, street cleaning and lighting 6% and planning services 28%.

Cllr Osman, leader of Conservative-controlled Somerset County Council, said: "Our ability to provide anything but the minimum level of support for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities is now being threatened. Neither the public nor MPs would accept a 30% reduction in NHS funding.

"There would be uproar. Yet that is the kind of reduction local authorities - with responsibility for protecting vulnerable children and adults - are being forced to cope with."

Cllr Martin Tett, leader of Buckinghamshire County Council - another Conservative-controlled authority, said: "External pressures and demand for services mean we face a potential overspend, despite the fact we are a well-run, efficient council which has saved almost £100 million over the past five years.

"The public will now see an impact in terms of highways and pavements maintenance, as we will need to postpone some routine repairs and improvement projects. I'm sorry to have to do this but if we don't act, we could find we have no money left in reserves in a year or so."

Cllr Jennifer Mein, leader of Lancashire County Council (no overall control - Labour largest group), said: "The reality of our financial situation is such that we will have to use the bulk of our reserves just to balance the budget over the next two years. And by 2017/18, we will only just have enough money to pay for our statutory services."

David Cameron recently left himself open to accusations of "hypocrisy" after writing to the Conservative leader of his local council bemoaning proposed service cuts.

Councillor Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent Council in London said: "As the leader of the Prime Minister's own county council will tell you, the scale of government cuts requires local authorities to cut frontline services that have a real impact on the lives of residents.

"London Councils now projects that the government is phasing out the Revenue Support Grant, effectively walking away from their responsibility for local services. All must stand on their own two feet - which is fine if you are super-rich Westminster, but will hit more unfortunate local authorities harder.

"Given that we must protect statutory services and those that support the most vulnerable like looked-after children and the elderly, ultimately our challenge is to do somewhat less with an awful lot less."

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: "Everywhere you look local services are being cut, jobs are going and people and communities are suffering. Despite the warnings the Government seems intent on breaking Britain.

"Youth centres are closing, leaving young people congregating on street corners with nothing to do. There aren't enough social workers to protect children at risk of neglect. The day centres that people with learning disabilities used to visit have closed, and now they hardly ever get out. This is the reality of life in austerity Britain, and it will get a whole lot worse in this week's Spending Review.

"The recent exchange of letters with his own council leader shows that the Prime Minister simply doesn't understand the damage his Government is causing. Soon councils will only be able to provide the services the law requires them to, non-essential services will either disappear or residents will have to pay much more to use them."

Communities Secretary Greg Clark said: "With local government accounting for a quarter of all public spending, it is inevitable that councils are playing their part in reducing the deficit.

"Most councils have managed their responsibilities in a careful and efficient way, with public satisfaction in local services having increased or maintained in the last five years.

"Further savings will need to be made during the years ahead and we will work together with local government to ensure that this can be done in an intelligent way based on discussions with local government itself."