Tory council leaders warn of severe cuts in England

Tory council leaders have delivered a stark warning to ministers that failure to tackle English local authorities’ cash crisis will force them to cut vital services, from social care to libraries and refuse collection.

Patrick Butler

The County Councils Network (CCN), 32 of whose 36 members are Conservative-controlled said just a fifth of authorities were confident they could meet their legal duty to set a balanced budget next year and avoid effective bankruptcy.

Over half of its member councils were planning “moderate or severe” service reductions in adult social care, nearly a third were seeking heavy cuts to road repair budgets, and 33% were considering major savings in library services.

Over two-thirds said that cuts to frontline service would hamper efforts to support the government’s “levelling-up” plans to boost local economies in the north and Midlands, while 60% agreed the cuts would result in greater hardship for residents.

“We are quickly running out of ways to meet the funding shortfall without dramatic reductions which will make visible and damaging changes to highly-valued services,” said David Williams, CCN chair and leader of Hertfordshire county council.

“The financial support provided by government over the past year has been very welcome. But even before the onslaught of a second wave, councils were facing difficult choices and they are now left with little room to manoeuvre over the coming months as they face further escalating costs resulting in an immediate cliff-edge next year.”

The warning comes as all councils continue to struggle with serious financial pressures stemming from the pandemic, including the spiralling cost of providing personal protective equipment, coupled with an abrupt fall-off in council tax and business rates income.

The survey of CCN members, carried out in October, found that 60% were anticipating having to make a “fundamental reduction” in frontline services. Without extra government funding, over half said they would cut access to care packages for older and disabled residents, with many planning to introduce new care charges.

Although recent rises in numbers of vulnerable children mean children’s social care budgets will be relatively protected, over a quarter of CCN member councils were planning reductions to child protection, early years and youth services budgets.

The survey shows over half of CCN councils are planning reductions to school transport services, libraries, education support, recycling and waste collection. Nearly half predict cuts to road pothole filling services.

The CCN’s members provide local council services in about two-thirds of all Tory-held parliamentary constituencies, including in home counties heartlands such as Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Hampshire.

The government is expected to set out its funding plans for English local government though the Treasury spending review scheduled for the end of this month.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We’re giving councils unprecedented support during the pandemic, with nearly £1.2bn in non-ringfenced emergency funding for county councils. Additionally, their core spending power increased by £974m in 2020-21 even before emergency funding was announced.”