Ordinary people across England face yet more savage cuts to services as councils finalise their budgets. And they’ll be expected to pay more to get less as many authorities plan to raise council tax by up to 5 percent.
In England, the overwhelming majority of councils—94 percent—expect to cut spending, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report. At least 25 claim they face bankruptcy.
Some councils admitted that their cuts would have “direct and immediate effects on service users”.
Examples include library closures, fewer waste collections, cuts to bus route subsidies and cuts to homelessness support.
They also include “reviews” of adult social care and special educational needs and disabilities packages.
The NAO report highlighted the impact of the pandemic on councils.
Councils have spent an extra £6.9 billion on Covid-related services, such as helping with test, track and trace and housing rough sleepers.
They expect extra coronavirus spending to amount to £6.9 billion this year—12.5 percent of their expenditure last year.
At the same time, councils expect to have lost £2.8 billion in 2020-21 due to the pandemic.
The closure of facilities means they are short of money from car parking charges and from attractions such as leisure centres and museums.
Councils expect to lose a further £2.1 billion of revenue this year.
Yet the pandemic hasn’t caused the council crisis. The NAO pointed out that a decade of austerity has made councils “more vulnerable” to the impact of Covid-19.
Austerity has cut councils’ spending power by a third. It has also made councils “more reliant” on money from local fees and charges, and council tax. Meanwhile there “have been increases in demand for adult social care, children’s social care and homelessness services”.
In the week that the NAO published its report, the Labour-run Nottingham city council approved a plan to axe 272 jobs. That’s around 5 percent of the workforce.
Labour-run Leeds city council plans £87 million in cuts including slashing nearly 800 jobs.
And the leader of the Labour‑run Birmingham council Ian Ward wants “£20 million of new savings, on top of £21 million that are already set to be delivered in the year ahead”.
The council has made over £730 million in cuts since 2010.
Labour councils often simply blame the Tories for their cuts—and its right to be furious with the Tories.
But councils could resist (see below). And they could use reserves to fund services.
The NAO found that, while some councils face “financial failure” because of “funding gaps and low reserve levels” most don’t.
Just 1.5 percent of all authorities are at “acute” risk of failure, and another 5.9 percent are high risk.
Councils had £24.6 billion in reserves at the end of March last year, figures published last month showed.
The money’s there for jobs and services.
But it will take a fight to make sure it is spent.
Labour’s May election campaign lacks resistance to the Tories
Labour launched its campaign for the 6 May elections last week. It made clear that there will be no systematic resistance to council cuts.
The May votes bring together elections postponed from last year and ones scheduled for this year.
It will include polls for district and county councils, police and crime commissioners and city mayors, including in London.
Voting in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd elections will take place on the same day.
It will be a major test of opinion.
Labour leader Keir Starmer tried to connect the party to others who are popular, perhaps in recognition of how unpopular his leadership has been. So his main message was, “In these elections, a vote for Labour is a vote to support our nurses.”
Yet when questioned Starmer refused to back the unions’ pay claims. He would only say that “the starting point should be the 2.1 percent increase” contained in earlier health budgets.
There is no plan to use positions that Labour wins to begin new resistance to the Tories.
At Labour’s election launch Starmer claimed, “Our amazing Labour councils and councillors have gone above and beyond.”
Their real record is of implementing Tory-imposed cuts.
Councils are responsible for almost a quarter of all public expenditure in England.
They could be a base for a fightback
In the 1980s there was some resistance to the Tories at council level. It was insufficient and failed to engage the real power of working class people.
But councillors at least talked of refusing to implement cuts and won some gains. This was swiftly replaced by Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s “dented shield” approach, urging Labour councils to make cuts in a “better way”.
Grudging acceptance soon became a positive argument for “making tough decisions” and “having the courage” to stay in office while central government slashed budgets.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership did not change this. One of his early acts was to tell councils not to set what were termed “illegal budgets”.
The 2016 Labour conference went further. It made it a disciplinary offence for a Labour councillor to “support any proposal to set an illegal budget” or to “vote against or abstain on a Labour group policy decision on this matter”.
Labour councils could do a lot more. They could rule out further privatisation and bring outsourced services back under council control. They could use reserves and borrowing powers to remove the need for cuts.
But only a mass campaign of protests, occupations and strikes could defend a no-cuts council and push back the Tories.
And Labour would very soon have to face this central issue.
In its absence, Labour councils will be just another group of politicians delivering essentially the same cuts.