"What are you supposed to do?" asked Olwyn Neal, 75, yesterday as she emerged from the public conveniences in Manchester's Mount Street looking suitably relieved. "Run up a ginnell? I don't know what they are thinking about. I suppose we'll have to buy a stock of corks," she added.
Though it might rank as one of Britain's better-appointed public conveniences, with two attendants, a parents' rooms and oak doors leading to immaculate cubicles, the lavatory on the ground floor of the city's Town Hall Extension took on a sudden symbolic importance yesterday.
Unlike six others in the city centre and a further 10 in the suburbs from Wythenshawe to Harpurhey, the facilities at Mount Street are soon to be the only council-funded public lavatories in Manchester – a grim survivor of the first round of government budget cuts.
Yet while the closure of toilets is by definition an inconvenience – up to 40 per cent of all surviving facilities have been closed by councils in the past decade – the terms being used to describe the other measures revealed by the Labour-led Manchester City Council yesterday were more visceral. "Savage" and "devastating" were the local headlines as the council wielded the axe on leisure centres, libraries, swimming pools, weekly bin collections and night-time street cleaning.
From September, lollipop patrols will be cut, as will new road safety measures, while motorists coming into the city will have to shell out for parking both earlier and later in the day as well as on Sundays for the first time.
As it became one of the first big Labour-run cities to reveal the full details of its austerity plan, council leader Sir Richard Leese described the reduction in public funding – £110m cut from next year and a further £60m in 2012/13 – as the "worst since the war". Two thousand jobs are already due to go at the town hall, but it is elsewhere, in some of the most deprived areas of the city, where the burden will be shared.
Swimming pools in Miles Platting and Levenshulme are to shut rather than be repaired. Leisure centres in Ardwick, Newton Heath and Levenshulme will also close, as will five small libraries across the city.
Sir Richard, first elected to the council in 1984, has lived through the years of rate capping under Margaret Thatcher and the cuts required to keep down the poll tax in the early 1990s, but he believes neither "were a patch" on the current situation in scale or speed of implementation.
He said the city had already planned to reduce its spending by £96m whatever the outcome of the last election, but the additional requirement of £60m above even this grim precaution has left the council seeking long-term savings of 25 per cent on its total budget. They claim the city is being unfairly penalised, and the victim of a £30m transfer of funds from poor to relatively more affluent parts of the country.
Sir Richard concedes the city's recent renaissance has left it better placed than it was, but there would still be real pain. "Manchester is still going to be relatively well endowed with leisure and library facilities, although people might have to travel to access them. The most damaging cuts are those which are invisible and which see resources go to the individual from national government," he said.
Chief among these is a £12.6m cut to the Supporting People budget, resulting in the scrapping of 340 homes allowing people with disabilities to live independently. A further £8m is being cut from its early intervention grant, which includes Sure Start, as the council learns to live with a 25 per cent cut to its children's service budget. "I cannot and will not pretend that the financial position in which we have been placed is anything other than bad news. Manchester is the fourth most deprived local authority area but is among the top five hardest-hit local authorities," Sir Richard added.
The city was not alone in its pain yesterday. Across the Pennines in North Yorkshire, the county council announced 330 job cuts and the closure of nine care homes for the elderly, while City of York Council said it would be making 170 redundant to save £21m and Wakefield City Council announced 1,700 posts to go over the next four years.
If Manchester was expecting understanding from the Coalition, it was mistaken. Grant Shapps, Local Government minister, called for savings by greater sharing of back-office facilities and from copying "innovative" neighbouring councils such as Tory-run Trafford. "This is a cynical move by a Labour council, which is intentionally cutting frontline services and playing politics with people's lives. It's Labour politicians that are in denial about the financial mess left by the last government, and they have clearly failed to prepare for the inevitable reductions in public spending as a result of Labour's budget deficit," he said.
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