Fears that fresh Stoke-on-Trent City Council cuts could wipe out services
LEISURE centres, libraries and other popular council-run facilities could be axed by the end of the decade – and budget cuts are set to continue for another eight years.
Dire financial forecasts being used by Stoke-on-Trent City Council's finance chiefs indicate that the soaring cost of legal duties such as adult care, combined with continued Government funding cuts, will all but wipe out cherished community services.
The authority is making cuts of £24 million this year, following savings of £35.6 million in 2011/12, which have seen 1,000 redundancies and sweeping cuts to services.
Now, officers are drawing up plans for another round of budget cuts – even though they will not find out how much more Government funding they will lose next year until December.
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The Local Government Association (LGA) expects budget cuts to continue until 2020 and predicts a £16.5 billion funding shortfall will open up between the amount of money available to councils to provide services and the predicted cost of maintaining them at current levels.
Its "conservative estimates" even include increased income from annual council tax hikes of two per cent from 2013.
Peter Bates, the authority's assistant director of finance, told councillors the authority was pulling together "in a time of crisis".
He said: "We have been working on the next budget almost ever since the budget was set in February.
"Unfortunately, we still do not know what resources we will have through central Government and won't get that specification until December or January. What we are getting from the LGA is bleak. It is indicating that austerity measures will continue well beyond the next general election."
Mr Bates echoed the LGA's warning that services may face radical change, telling councillors: "Given the flow of change for the public sector, it is an opportune time that dialogue is opened up more fully with residents about the range of services a local authority can provide in future.
"It will be really difficult to balance the needs of local people and what we are able to provide. It's quite a complex landscape that elected members are going to have."
The LGA, which represents 373 councils in England and Wales, is calling for urgent reforms to social care funding to avert the crisis.
Clive Rushton, below, branch secretary for Unison Stoke-on-Trent, said: "Anybody in local Government across the whole of Britain is waiting and does not expect things to get better. I can't remember a budget in recent years where the amount they were going to spend went up.
"There is more pain to come before things get better.
"My worry is that it will impact on the services that the people of Stoke-on-Trent are going to get. The bottom line is that services cost money.
"We usually meet at the end of October to start consultation on the budget. My understanding is that officers are still working desperately on trying to put a budget together.
"I wouldn't like to have their job. If cuts are going to come, as we all expect, we are reaching the point where there is no meat left to trim. We are cutting into the bone."
LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell said: "By the end of the decade, councils may be forced to wind down some of the most popular services they provide unless urgent action is taken to address the crisis in adult social care funding."