Councils’ crossroads between a rock and a hard place

By Heather Jameson | 03 August 2022
  • Heather Jameson

A week on from the local government employers’ pay offer and the full impact on hard-up councils has started to emerge.

After more than a decade of austerity, transformation and cutting services to the bone, it is hard to see how local government will balance its books this time.

On our front page we have some of the most senior council chiefs in the country warning of a return to the darkest days of austerity.

They are adamant that staff deserve a pay rise – employees should be cushioned from the cost of living crisis – but they are, for now, at a loss to know how to plug budget black holes. Finances are squeezed on all sides. Councils separately face their own inflation pressures, and their tax-raising powers have become farcically weak.

They can’t raise council tax – it is centrally capped and would hammer the public. They can’t raise business rates – it is centrally set and would hammer small businesses. And most attempts at commercialisation look unlikely as a solution.

As the candidates for Prime Minister launch blindly into a race to the bottom on tax cuts, and by definition public service cuts, local authorities will examine their budgets once more. Too often, services at arm’s-length of Whitehall bear a disproportionate burden. But this time there is little left to chop.

While public service cuts may appeal to Conservative grassroots, they are often a false economy and don’t always appeal to the wider public.

Many councils have closed leisure centres, axed youth facilities and slashed discretionary services – all prevention services that cut costs in the long run. The very services the UK should be investing in now to avoid shunting vast costs into the future.

When it comes to adult social care, the cost to the country – of bed blocking and pushing people to acute care – is the potential collapse of the NHS.

Britain’s leadership candidates claim to favour levelling up, yet seemingly push policies to cut public service jobs in the areas that need them most. They are hollowing out our towns and cities of public buildings, and removing services that create economic growth and life chances.

As more families are plunged into poverty during this escalating crisis, and services teeter on the brink, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Funding public services for the future is not just a prudent investment, it is a necessity.

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