£80m in cuts for councils in Devon and Cornwall
Councils across Devon and Cornwall face making more deep cuts to fill a black hole of more than £80 million left by the latest round of Whitehall austerity.
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said next year's reduction of 1.7% in "spending power" for councils across England represents "a bargain to local authorities".
But the cut is not as benign as the headline figure suggests as the "spending power" measure, the key measure published by the Government, masks the full extent of central government hand-outs being scaled back.
And while the Department for Communities and Local Government only released the local government settlement for the year starting in April, leaked documents seen by the Western Morning News suggest harsher cuts can be expected in 2014/15.
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Cornwall Council will have around £511 million of "spending power" from April – a calculation that includes council tax, the main Whitehall grant and money for hitting house-building targets.
But this has been cut by 1.8% (£9 million less) and a 3.7% reduction (£19 million) is in the pipeline for 2014/15.
Devon County Council faces a similar deficit. Its spending power is £570 million, a fall of 2.1% (or £12 million) and a 3.1% decrease (or £18 million) will come the year after.
Plymouth City Council's £232 million pot comes after a 1.9% cut in April and 4.5% less a year later, stripping it of £15 million in total.
Torbay has £138 million next year, but will have to find £9 million after cuts of 2.3% and 4.5% over the two years. Devon's smaller district councils will also feel the pinch.
Unions said libraries, day centres and youth clubs were already closing under previous cuts, care was being rationed, and young people found that careers advice had "all but disappeared".
Last night, Alex Folkes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cornwall Council, hit out at the "ridiculous games" the Secretary of State was playing.
He said: "Eric Pickles seems to be trying to make life as difficult for local councils as he possibly can.
"He has moved the date of the financial settlement back by a month – which makes proper budgeting almost impossible. But he is also hiding the real numbers behind a mysterious 'spending power' number."
He added: "Local councils have a difficult enough job trying to maintain valued frontline services without Eric Pickles playing ridiculous games.
"He should put away the eggnog and start being open and transparent with councils."
Unitary, district and county authorities across the region were unable to comment in detail last night as they had yet to receive a breakdown of their Whitehall grant.
Ministers want councils to move away from relying on central government funding and the council tax levy to pay for bin collections, libraries and social care, hence the "spending power" measure.
Councils get extra cash for the number of new houses they approve – and get more for affordable dwellings – and have been promised a greater share of business rates if they can encourage industry to thrive.
But many of these measures have yet to kick in and councils have to call a local referendum if they want to hike council tax above 2%, which is why they are so anxious to get the detail of their grant.
The Government also yesterday published a list of "sensible savings" ideas for councils – ranging from opening a coffee shop in the local library to cancelling "glitzy" award ceremonies – to avoid cuts to frontline services.
The 50 tips for town halls also include cutting spending on consultants and agency staff and on head hunters and expensive adverts which can cost thousands of pounds in national newspapers.
Mr Pickles told MPs during his Commons announcement on local government finance that a "small number" of local authorities would require larger savings to be made, but no council would face a loss of more than 8.8% of their total spending power.
He said: "The settlement leaves councils with considerable total spending power. The overall reduction in spending power next year will be just 1.7%; 1.7% represents a bargain to local authorities."
Labour's shadow local government secretary, Hilary Benn, said: "It is clear that he is living in a world of his own because he simply does not understand the impact that his decisions on funding are having."