Councils in crisis with more tax rises and service cuts due

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

Council tax payers in England face near universal rises on top of increased fees and charges to pay for what in many cases will be reduced levels of local services, according to a survey of local authorities.

It reveals that 97% of local authorities will put council tax up again in April to cope with a growing financial crisis, and the same proportion will raise charges for services such as parking, garden waste disposal and aspects of social care.

The latest State of Local Government analysis reveals widespread despair among councils over their financial health after a decade of austerity policies in which spending has been cut in half and the gap between demand and resources has grown.

More than a fifth of councils said the cuts to frontline services that they would be forced to make in 2020-21 were of a scale and impact that would be noticeable to the general public. One in 10 said shrinking resources meant they were in danger of being unable to meet their legal obligation to deliver statutory services.

Asked which services would have increased fees and charges, councils most commonly mentioned green waste, planning permissions, car parking, leisure and arts centre memberships, burials and cremations and pest control. One replied: “All we can get away with.”

Three-quarters of councils had no confidence that local government finance arrangements were sustainable, while only 3% were confident that the government would act to halt the council funding crisis, despite increasing pressures on child protection, adult social care and homelessness services.

Jonathan Carr-West, the chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank that carried out the annual survey, said: “The state of local government finances is dire. Eight years later and the message continues to be the same, a broken record. It is simply unacceptable that the government has let things get to this point.”

He added: “This isn’t local government asking for more money. This is about a fundamentally flawed system that has been broken for years and the government continually refusing to acknowledge or engage in a proper solution.

“Sticking plasters will not solve these critical issues. Our social care system is no longer on the edge, it’s fallen off the cliff. Our children’s services aren’t at breaking point, they’re broken. These issues cannot wait another year to be solved.”

Andrew Gwynne, the shadow communities secretary, said the survey should be a wake-up call for ministers. “The fact is that years of neglect have created this crisis. We need to see urgent action,” he said.

In the last few years there have been widespread cuts in some high-profile areas of local government such as Sure Start centres, youth clubs, special educational needs and libraries, as well as in less prominent areas such as planning, family support services and environmental health.

Scepticism that the government will pump more money into local government – or even publish its social care funding green paper, delayed since summer 2017 – has led many councils to consider alternative income streams, with 75% of surveyed councils reporting that they have borrowed to invest in commercial property schemes.

Two-thirds of councils said the current 3% cap on council tax increases – which councils can breach only if they get residents to agree to the rise via a local referendum – should be be scrapped to enable them to raise more cash from residents to fund local services.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Next year, councils in England will have access to £49.1bn – the biggest annual real-terms increase in spending power in a decade – including an extra £1.5bn for social care. The funding plans provide certainty for councils who are responsible for delivering the services their communities need.”