Hundreds of thousands of council workers may not be paid this month because their earnings are frozen by the Icelandic bank collapse, it emerged last night.
The Local Government Association has just eight days to avert a catastrophe, senior sources warned. The LGA has urged the Treasury not to insist on prompt payment of nearly £1bn in business taxes owed by councils, and due on 20 October, to free up cash and allow staff to be paid.
It is understood that dozens of the 100-plus local councils that are victims of the Iceland banking crisis use their accounts for the payroll of everyone from the chief executive to frontline staff. Until now it was thought only capital savings, worth £840m, were locked in the failed banks. But the accounts were also used as a quick way to earn interest to pay wages.
And in a fresh blow to the banking industry, The Independent on Sunday has learnt that seven councils are to withdraw a total of £2bn from British and foreign banks because they fear the crisis could claim more victims. The money will be transferred to government bonds, leaving a gaping hole in UK banking assets at a time when the Treasury is struggling to prop them up with its £500bn bailout.
Treasury officials and the Icelandic authorities said last night that they had made "significant progress" in agreeing in principal a quick payout for British investors – including local councils – who had about £4bn in the Icelandic Landsbanki's internet bank Icesave.
The News of the World also reported that the value of Icelandic-owned assets seized by the Britain under anti-terror laws was believed to be roughly equivalent to the amount invested in Icelandic banks by British individuals and organisations.
As the economic crisis deepens, Gordon Brown will today make an unprecedented appearance in Paris before an emergency summit of eurozone leaders held by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Prime Minister will give a presentation on last week's bailout, which gave the taxpayer a £50bn stake in British banks.
A No 10 spokesman said last night: "We don't expect everyone to do exactly what we have done, but the approach we set out is probably the best kind of model."
Following G7 finance meetings in Washington, President George Bush called for a "serious global response" to cope with the continuing plunge in markets, backing moves to buy stock in troubled financial institutions.
A local government source warned that most of the councils caught in the collapse had invested funds from revenue accounts, used to cover recurring costs such as wages and local services, in Icelandic banks – with terrifying implications for staff and clients. It is not known which councils are affected, but conservative estimates of 50 authorities would cover more than 150,000 staff.
Public-sector unions last night revealed they had written to employers laying out their "grave concerns" about the immediate impact on wages, jobs and front-line services. Unison spokeswoman Mary McGuire said: "We have asked the LGA ... how much councils have deposited, and exactly what the impact is going to be in the short term."
Haringey made a £5m investment in Iceland just last week – after the nation's first bank, Glitnir, went bankrupt. The leader of Haringey Council said in a statement: "We have sufficient resources to manage these exceptional circumstances. Frontline council services will not be affected because we have sound and prudent financial management in place to protect against such risks."
Braintree council, in Essex, has confirmed that the £230,000 annual interest from £5m of taxpayers' money held in three failed Icelandic banks was to be spent on payroll and services.
Despite warnings as far back as July that investing in Icelandic banks was risky, Tory-controlled Winchester council deposited £1m in Heritable, a Landsbanki subsidiary, in September. Lord Oakeshott, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said: "Winchester council was grossly imprudent. I wouldn't put them in charge of a child's money box."
Council leaders will meet local government minister John Healey and the economic secretary to the Treasury, Ian Pearson, later this week to appeal for more help, including a delay in the payment of business rates. More money is due to the Treasury on 6 November, the date of the Glenrothes by-election.
The shadow Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, said: "If the Government shows some flexibility, I am sure that most problems in regard to cash-flow will be taken care of."
Local government difficulties
Interest rate swaps
In the 1980s, council officers, who were largely unskilled for the task, became involved in a sophisticated form of derivative known as an interest rate swap. Until 1988, when interest rates rose, councils made a tidy profit, but then huge losses were incurred. Hammersmith & Fulham council lost about £200m on investments worth £6bn, but eventually settled with many of its creditors.
Off balance sheet
Not yet a disaster, but there are plenty of critics of councils' – and central government's – habit of taking healthcare facilities and schools built through the private finance initiative off their balance sheets. The argument is that the risk of the project failing is borne by the private sector and so the project should go on its balance sheet. However, even some officials privately admit that it's a smoke and mirrors exercise to ensure big investments do not come out of a local or central government budget.
The Bank of Credit and Commerce International collapsed in 1991 owing more than $16bn (£9.4bn) and took the deposits of local councils down with it.