Friday, 19 December 2014

City Council faces even more cuts as Tories savage public spending again

Lancaster City Council is facing further cuts to its funding next year, after the government announced further funding reductions to the money it gives our area by 6.4% - which could push it to breaking point.

Yesterday, the communities and local government minister Kris Hopkins announced what he called a fair financial settlement for councils in 2015-16. English councils will face an average cut of 1.8% in spending power and Hopkins said no council would see more than a 6.4% cut.

"Every council should be able to deliver sensible savings while protecting frontline services for local taxpayers,” he claimed.

While other Northern councils, including Preston, Pendle and Barrow-in-Furness face similar swingeing cuts, a small number of councils, predominantly in well off places such as Windsor and Wokingham will get a slight increase.

While the news is grim for our local council, Lancashire County Council is facing even bigger cuts. With about 60% of its spending unable to be cut because they have a statutory duty to maintain funding, we can expect some pretty tough decisions over the future of the Storey Institute, libraries, the Maritime Museum, the City Museum and others.

Other non-statutory services funded by the two councils such as amongst others Salt Ayre, Barton Road Community Centre, arts funding, funding for activities and clubs for young people, services for the elderly and more will now face further scrutiny to deliver on the cuts the reduction in government has brought about.

Across the country, town hall chiefs have already warned Government they are pushing them to breaking point, accusing them of playing down the size and the seriousness of real term cuts to council spending.

The Guardian reports that the group that represents local government heads, who currently oversee spending of £114 billion a year in England, said the reduction in central government grants amounted to an average 8.8% cut next year, around £2.6 billion in cash terms.

The government’s spending power figures represent the totality of funds available to councils, including business rates and NHS cash notionally available to local government social care services. The 8.8% figure refers to the amount of grant given directly to councils by the government.

“We cannot pretend that this will not have an impact on local government’s ability to improve people’s quality of life and support local businesses," said David Sparks, the chairman of the Local Government Association. “It is individuals who have paid the price of funding reductions, whether it is through seeing their local library close, roads deteriorate or support for young people and families scaled back.”

The LGA estimates that central funding for councils has shrunk by 40% overall since 2010, and this decrease has come at a time when demand for core services such as child protection and social care of older people is rapidly increasing.

The cuts have even alarmed Tory council leaders some also highly critical of the latest round of cuts. David Hodge, Conservative leader of Surrey county council, told BBC Radio 4: “There is a limit. You can only cut local government so far.”

“This settlement reminds us that the financial challenge facing local government is immense," commented Graeme McDonald, director of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. "Cuts of up to 6.4% will push some authorities to breaking point.”

It seems strange to think that when David Cameron came to power he promised to give local councils much more power. "Over the last century Britain has become one of the most centralised countries in the developed world," he said. "I am convinced that if we have more local discretion - more decisions made and money spent at the local level - we'll get better outcomes."

"But in the spring of 2011, something counter-intuitive happened," notes BBC correspondent Mark Easton. "For the first time probably in living memory, central government was bigger than local government. The number of people in the UK employed by Whitehall overtook the number employed by the town hall."

Instead of employing staff direct, many councils - with Tory councils leading the charge - have outsourced services to private companies, a move that leaves them unaccountable. Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty noted that claimed savings made by such practices were dubious - and reports on how changes at Brent Council have left local taxpayers bemused about where and how they sould complain when a previously-run Council service fails to deliver (if it still exists).

In more bad news for the country's most vulnerable, Ministers did not reverse plans to end £180m central funding for local welfare assistance schemes aimed at providing crisis help for a range of vulnerable people who fall into unexpected crisis, including women fleeing domestic violence, homeless people, pregnant mothers, care leavers, pensioners and people suffering from chronic physical and mental health problems.

However, they did acknowledge concerns, including those raised by a last minute 38 Degrees petition signed by 100,000 people, and set aside £130m for the emergency fund for people in crisis (PDF link). But they have left it up to councils whether they use it for that or not. So there’s still no certainty.

In the face of more cuts to services, councillors and taxpayers alike are scrabbling for solutions to the funding shortfall. Some people have suggested cutting still further councillors' allowances etc., but compared with the expenses MPs have claimed (Iain Duncan claimed for his underpants) what councillors get seems pretty small based on reported expenses (Word Doc link on City Council web site).

"Local councillors get paid a tiny amount for the work they're expected to do," argues local business man Michael Gibson. "The Leader of Lancaster City Council, Eileen Blamire, effectively controls a £20 million company with another £15 million of devolved spending. She should work at least 40 hours a week. She gets paid £11,400 a year. Local city councillors, there are too many, get paid £3,300 a year. No one claims expenses of more than a few hundred pounds a year. If anything we need less councillors, paid more money so we can attract talented people to the job who can make a real difference."

Councillors get a basic £3000 allowance (compared with £60,000+ for an MP) and then an allowance for special responsibility, travelling and subsistence. Overall councillors claimed £80,182.97 in total claimed for special allowances for the year 2013/14 and 3,962.21 for travel. Overall, our councillors cost local tax payers £281,595.18.

For comparison, Morecambe MP David Morris's expenses during the year 2012 / 2013 were £75,624.43  and that figure is less than what the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which examines MPs expenses, spent on office furniture!

Who would want to be a local councillor right now facing such dreadful choices? What would you cut?

 • The BBC has full details of where the cuts will fall on its web site here

Daily Telegraph: Hospitals and fire services to be run 'outside the public sector'

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