Councils warned of cash threat to services

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The Independent Online
Council tax increases and service cuts are threatened by a pounds 1.6bn hole in next year's local authority accounts, the Liberal Democrats warned yesterday. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, tracks a town hall crisis.

Today's Commons statement on local government spending for 1998-99 could leave schools with a pounds 200m shortfall on basic educational provision, Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on local government, warned yesterday.

The Government has made additional provision of pounds 835m for schools and the education budget, but Mr Burstow said that no allowance had been made for inflation - estimated at 2.75 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats calculate that about pounds 3.5m cuts will have to be found in Oxfordshire, for example - which could mean the loss of nearly 300 teaching posts, or the closure of the Banbury Teachers' Centre, or closure of the music service, with 116 redundancies.

Mr Burstow warned that local authorities would only be able to provide extra money for schools if they were willing to make more drastic savings elsewhere - such as, the police, fire, social services and roads budgets. But his analysis showed that police and fire budgets were already heading for a pounds 250m shortfall; environment and protective services, for a shortfall of pounds 545m; and social services, a shortfall of pounds 644m.

Those estimates, provided by the Labour-led Local Government Association, could mean severe service cuts for the elderly and disabled, people in need of community care, child protection and those covered by asylum and immigration laws.

According to a Liberal Democrat briefing paper, "Seven out of ten authorities will have to tighten eligibility criteria for service provision ... six out of ten will have to increase charges for such services above the rate of inflation, while four out of ten will have to charge for services previously provided free".

Mr Burstow said: "Tomorrow, the Labour Government has its first chance to show that they are no longer willing to make council taxpayers pay more for less. However, all the signs are that Labour will not provide the cash needed to cover for their increased inflation forecasts, and will expect councils to slash police, fire and care services in order to fund even stand-still budgets for schools ... Any cuts on Tuesday will be Labour cuts - they will not be able to pin new cuts on the Conservatives."