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Nearly all councils plan to raise council tax this year and increase charges to make up forcuts in central government funding, reports Herpreet Kaur Grewal.

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© Getty Images and iStock

01 April 2019 Herpreet Kaur Grewal

Nearly all councils plan to raise council tax this year and increase charges to make up for cuts in central government funding, according to a survey by a local government think tank.

The 2019 State of Local Government Finance Survey has found that more than half (53 per cent) of councils are eating into their reserves to stay afloat, says the Local Government Information Unit.

The research underlines concerns over recent years of how cuts to local government have affected services including facilities management. Councils have been looking at different models to deliver services, including joint venture models. 

The LGIU’s research shows that four out of five local authorities (81 per cent) are investing in commercial developments while nearly half plan cuts to services. Eight in 10 senior council decision-makers believe the current system for council funding is unsustainable.

A quarter of councils say the public would notice planned cuts to services in the coming year. Worryingly, the financial situation is so bad for one in 20 councils (22 councils in England) that they are concerned that they will not be able to deliver the legal minimum service to residents.  

Environment and waste was named second in the list of top long-term concerns (17 per cent of councils place it top). Almost a quarter of councils (22 per cent) claim they are planning reductions in service levels within waste collection owing to budget constraints, and one in 10 plans to reduce recycling (11 per cent).

Local authorities have seen their central funding reduced by 40 per cent on average, states the report. Respondents to the survey admit that they would be further reducing activity in arts and culture (46 per cent), parks and leisure activities (45 per cent), roads (38 per cent), libraries (32 per cent) waste collection (22 per cent), and recycling (11 per cent).

Councils say they are planning to introduce or increase charging across a wide range of areas including: garden and bulky waste collection, parking, fine enforcement, and leisure facilities as a way to fund services.

When it comes to facilities services, local councils such as North Lanarkshire in Scotland have been attempting to devise new models. Council tax has been increased by 3 per cent and cuts of £16 million have been agreed. This includes introducing fees for services such as burials. 

It has also led to job losses. For example, 43 janitorial posts are to be cut across the region’s schools. Instead, staff will work in facilities teams covering a number of schools instead having posts dedicated to a particular one. This will also reduce pay. 

Other councils, such as Aberdeen City Council, are considering increasing fees and services in local libraries. Plans to cut winter maintenance of roads and upkeep of parks and public spaces are also being put forward.

Chief executive of the LGiU, Jonathan Carr-West, said: “With more cuts ahead, local councils have no option but to take drastic measures to make ends meet. In the future care for the elderly and vulnerable children could be funded from shopping centre investments and car parks, which carries significant risk if the economy tanks.

“Now more than ever we need a thriving, resilient local government sector to weather the storm of national uncertainty, but years of chronic underfunding has left local government on life support.”

Children’s services and education are the top immediate financial pressures for the second year running (36 per cent of councils), ahead of adult social care (23 per cent), which has historically ranked highest. However, adult social care is still under severe strain, being named as the top long-term financial pressure (37 per cent of councils).

Gang activity, including county lines operations, was identified as a big pressure on children’s services by one in 20 upper-tier councils (6 per cent placed it in their top three) in the South East, London, and the Midlands.

Services for vulnerable people also face cuts, as councils plan to reduce activity in adult social care (29 per cent), children’s care (24 per cent), special education and disability support. 

Emma Potter