The closure of public services such as leisure centres, libraries and youth clubs is likely to intensify over the next two years as councils across Britain deal with a tipping point in their finances, the Local Government Association has warned.
A survey of council financial strategies found three in five will have exhausted other ways of making savings by the 2015/16 financial year, meaning they will need to make deeper cuts to public services before the general election and in the following year.
The LGA sounded the warning before this month’s local elections, which are taking place in many district, borough and town councils. The newly elected representatives, along with incumbents, will have to decide whether to shut some public services almost as soon as they have taken office.
Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the Liberal Democrat vice-chairman of the LGA, said that until now many people had noticed relatively little difference in most local services over the past three years, but that this was about to change.
“With another £20bn worth of savings to be found, we’re approaching a tipping point where options are fast running out,” he said. “The next two years will be the toughest yet for those who use and rely upon the popular local services councils provide.
“We need to find a better way to ensure public money gets to the frontline where it is most needed and doesn’t get lost in the maze of Whitehall. Otherwise we risk sleepwalking into a situation where an upturn in the economy coincides with a decline in public services.”
The warning is made in a report, Under Pressure, which says most councils are approaching the “end of the road” when it comes to protecting frontline services from closures. The most difficult decisions are likely to come in the year starting April 2015, but some councils could face a crunch sooner.
The survey found local services such as leisure facilities, children’s centres and pothole repairs are likely to bear the brunt of funding cuts.
Just one in five councils believes next year’s cuts can be covered by efficiency savings alone, while two in five are considering higher charges for discretionary services such as leisure centres.
The LGA report says councils are almost at the point “where they will not have enough money to meet all their statutory responsibilities”.
LGA modelling, which factored in reduced funding and rising demand for adult social care, shows money available to provide services such as gyms, parks, libraries and youth centres is likely to shrink by 66% by the end of the decade.
Three in five will have exhausted other ways of making savings by 2015, leaving local services bearing the brunt of cuts
A poll for the BBC last October showed many people think the quality of public services has been maintained or improved in the past five years despite government cuts. In an ICM survey of more than 1,000 people, more reported improvements rather than declines in bin collections, parks and libraries, schools and bus services. More people thought the quality of elderly care, hospitals, police and road maintenance had gone down.
About 360,000 local government jobs have disappeared under the coalition and there are still billions of pounds in cuts to come before the end of the decade.
Figures compiled by Labour show the most deprived communities have suffered most from local government cuts while more affluent areas are escaping relatively unscathed.
An analysis of official figures by Paul Woods, Newcastle city council the veteran treasurer, showed councils in the 10 most deprived areas of England faced average cuts of 25.3% from the financial years 2010-11 to 2015-16, compared with 2.54% in the 10 least deprived areas.