Thousands of council jobs could be at risk

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Indy Politics

Tens of thousands of council jobs in England could be at risk over the next five years as local authorities struggle with the fall-out from the recession, according to a survey published today.

The survey by BBC English Regions suggested that almost one in ten of the workforce in some councils could be vulnerable as authorities are forced to cut back.

It found that of the 49 councils which were prepared to answer questions about possible job cuts, they were estimating losses of 25,000 over the next three to five years out of a total combined workforce of 256,000.

Eight authorities - Kirklees, Leeds, City of Bradford, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Surrey - said 1,000 or more posts might have to go within five years.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said that councils had been hit by a "perfect storm" and had little choice but to shed jobs.

"Sources of income have dropped sharply at a time when more and more people are turning to councils to help them through tough times," said LGA chairman Dame Margaret Eaton.

"Town halls have been swept by the cold winds of recession for more than a year and that means difficult choices have to be made. Up and down the country many councils feel they have to take the decision to cut jobs in response."

Tony Travers, the director of the Greater London group at the London School of Economics, warned that the scale of the cuts meant that the public would inevitably be affected.

"Nothing like this has happened for a generation. To minimise the impacts on the public would require massive efficiencies in all services, higher charges for many, and sharing back-office staff with other public bodies."

However, the Department for Communities and Local Government - which is today issuing guidance to councils on how to avoid cuts to frontline services by improving efficiency - said local authorities should not try to blame ministers for their difficulties.

"Any decisions to cut frontline services or announce big job losses this year are very much local decisions. Councils should not try to blame Whitehall," a spokesman said.

"Over half - 57% - of council revenue comes from central government and we continue to give this support. In April councils will get an additional 4% - £76 billion - for 2010-11.

"There will be tough choices in the next few years as money gets tighter. But that is no reason to lower their sights on service quality."

The survey found that over 70% of councils were forecasting overall spending cuts of between 5% and 20% over the next three to five years.

While the councils in the survey had budgeted for an average 2.5% increase in revenue spending - covering running costs rather than capital projects - in 2010-11, the figure was sharply down on the 5.3% rise in 2008-09.

Libraries, the arts and leisure were identified as the services most vulnerable to cuts, while services for the homeless, children's social services and planning were more likely to be protected.

The survey was sent by the BBC to 150 county and unitary councils and metropolitan and London boroughs, of whom 93 responded, although many did not answer all the questions.

Every BBC local radio station in England will be hosting a live debate about the spending choices facing councils at 10am today.

Liberal Democrat local government spokesman Julia Goldsworthy said: "Three-quarters of council money comes from Government grants. John Denham's attempt to wash his hands of blame is outrageous.

"Councils are currently working in the dark and planning for worst-case scenarios as Labour refuses to publish the spending review they promised last summer.

"Ministers love kicking difficult political decisions into the long grass. They must come clean about cuts to council funding."

Shadow communities and local government secretary Caroline Spelman said: "Councils across the political spectrum are suffering from falls in income due to the cold winds of Labour's recession, compounded by fiddled funding from Whitehall which has caused council tax to double since 1997.

"Unlike Gordon Brown, who has mortgaged Britain to the hilt, local authorities have to balance their books.

"Town halls are in the unenviable position of having to tighten their belts or increase council tax on struggling families and pensioners. This is a problem of the Labour ministers' own making, no matter how much they try to pass the blame."