Join the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s budget transparency project to help us collect and scrutinise council budgets. Register here to get involved.
Councils across the country are planning cuts to vital local services in next year’s budgets - including adult and children’s social care, sexual health support, alcohol and substance rehabilitation and youth groups.
These proposals have been announced over the past three months as councils publish their draft budgets - often in long documents on quiet local government websites - before final sign off by the councils in March 2018.
With an estimated funding shortfall of £5.8 billion over the next two years, and having already cut back many services they don’t legally have to provide, local authorities in England face an unprecedented challenge. Not just to maintain ‘frontline’ services, but, in some extreme cases, to avoid bankruptcy.
The costs of responding to rising homelessness, as well as demand for adult and children’s social care, are increasing. Councils have already cut tens of thousands of jobs and drastically scaled back spending to balance the books.
The story so far...
The Bureau has dug into 74 of the councils that have published their proposals so far and already found £1.3 billion in cuts over the next five years, including £532 million in 2018/19 alone. Several councils will have to cut up to a third of their current spending.
Kensington and Chelsea has put forward plans to cut £32.3 million from its budget by March 2021, including £6.5 million from adult social care and £4.9 million from children’s services. The cuts have received no public scrutiny, despite the council being in the spotlight following the Grenfell Tower disaster six months ago.
We have identified another 36 councils where plans to cut spending by tens of millions have escaped attention.
Today the government announced the start of a consultation process that it says will lead to the introduction of a fairer funding system from 2020/21. In the meantime, local authorities will be allowed to raise council tax by 3 per cent without a local referendum (the current limit is 2 per cent).
Why local council funding matters
Local councils provide many services on which people rely, from rubbish collection and street cleaning, to supporting older people and keeping vulnerable children safe.
Draft budgets detail how councils intend to spend taxpayers’ money in the coming financial year. They also set out what your council tax will be, which budgets will rise or fall and how services will change as a result.
I spent eight years covering my local council when I was a reporter for the Croydon Advertiser. The draft proposals, and the coverage of them, provided transparency and often resulted in public participation. Meetings were held. Debates were had. Campaigns were launched, and it was not uncommon for more controversial proposals to be amended or even dropped by the final budget.
However, I worked in an understaffed newsroom on a busy patch and, realistically, couldn’t pay enough attention to what was being proposed elsewhere in London. This does not make sense in a city where people use services across multiple boroughs.
I enjoyed seeing reports of other local papers zooming in on the issue. And this time around, Wolverhampton’s Express and Star has reported on the £31 million in savings Walsall council needs to make by 2019/20, including plans to increase cremation fees and “safely” reduce demand for adult and children’s services.
The Peterborough Telegraph has written about its local council’s high-profile campaign for it to get a ‘fairer share’ of government funding. The council says it needs to cut £40 million from its budget over the next four years. And The Mail, a daily paper in the northwest, has reported on Cumbria County Council’s £73 million funding shortage over a similar period.
Yet there are areas of the country with no local newspapers, where local council budgets affecting tens of thousands of people receive no attention at all.
And scrutiny is key. The choices made in the funding of services touch everyone.
Against this backdrop it is perhaps more important than ever to have a comprehensive understanding of how local authorities spend their money and how communities will be affected. This is not done at the moment at a country-wide level.
However, collating all budget information for the 353 local authorities in England is a mammoth task. Each council publishes its budgets at a different time and in a different way. Most budgets sit in large PDF files, which makes analysis of cuts and their consequences a huge task that can't be done by us alone.
That’s why we are calling on local journalists and interested members of the public to help us collect local data, fact-check, contextualise and share expertise. We will be putting forward tasks that can be done remotely, and announcing meetups and hackdays in January and February.
We plan to centralise this fragmented information in order to see what might be cut and where - both to inform locally but also to collect local experiences and tell them at a national level.
Join our budget transparency project to help us collect and scrutinise council budgets.Register here to get involved.
Header picture via Katharine Quarmby/the Bureau
An earlier version of this piece listed some councils that we stated had not received media coverage of their draft budgets. That line has been removed.
Cornwall Council planning to cut CAB services - the last resort for desperate people.
Cornwall Council planning to cut funding to CAB service.
I use mental health services in my area. The cost of scaleback I don't know, but fear will be grave
It's interesting Cumbria County Council is mentioned as I published a PFI fire stations contract involving Cumbria County Council, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Lancashire Combined Fire Authority back in October 2015. Under the contract, the payments go up each year to the private company involved, which must cause more of a strain on already stretched budgets.
The contract is too long and complicated for me to fully understand though, which is partly why I published most of it here https://johnbrace.com/2015/10/23/exclusive-whats-in-the-north-west-fire-and-rescue-services-pfi-contract/ .