Local councils in Britain face severe financial strain, resulting in cuts to essential services like lollipop patrols, street lights, and public facilities. Austerity measures since 2010 exacerbate the crisis, risking vital community support and infrastructure.

B ritain is so broke that it can’t afford lollipop people any more. Councils are having to turn off the fountains in Nottingham and dim the street lights in Birmingham. In some areas, public toilets are a thing of the past. Libraries might soon follow them.

In Rotherham, Southampton and Blackpool, they’ve reduced funding for addiction support services. In Bradford, the town hall says the cuts it has to make are so deep that it will need to borrow money just so it has the capacity to implement them.

But the drastic decisions that local authorities are making now are just the tip of the iceberg. Austerity has been biting since 2010, when George Osborne slashed the amount of money councils could receive from central government in one of his first acts as chancellor.

Between 2010 and 2020, they lost more than 50% of their government grants in real terms. Six councils have already gone ‘bankrupt’ in the last two years while more than half of the rest say they could follow, meaning they could be taken over by Whitehall or replaced by new authorities.

One of those is Somerset Council in the south-west of England. “We have an emergency situation here,” its Lib Dem leader, Bill Revans, told openDemocracy. “Councils all over the country will collapse in the next two years.”

That’s a problem for just about everyone: councils are responsible for 800 different services, including meeting Britain’s soaring demand for social care. They also run schools, public health, housing, planning and licensing. “Everyone thinks that councils [just] collect the bins and fix the roads,” said Revans. “We do so, so much more.”

Most council services are mandatory, meaning they must legally be delivered. But others – including leisure centres, pest control, museums, and youth clubs – are discretionary, meaning councils can choose whether to offer them or not.

When Revans took office in 2022, he inherited a local authority that had already cut many of the services it wasn’t legally obliged to provide. Previous Tory leaders had slashed funding for youth services by 75% between 2011 and 2014, forcing 18 youth clubs to close.

Other councils have done the same. In 2011, English local authority spending on the sector was £1.48bn; by 2021 it was just £379m, according to a report by the YMCA.

Revans believes those cuts are now coming back to bite. “We’re seeing a knock-on effect from those cuts because a lot of preventive work was done in youth clubs,” he said. “If you intervene early, you don’t have the high cost later. So it’s penny wise and pound foolish, I think.”

Like many councils, Somerset is facing a rise in demand for children’s social care, a mandatory service. At the same time, costs have increased: councils pay more double than what they did six years ago to put a vulnerable child in a private care home, according to the LGA.

While councils can’t cut a mandatory service altogether, they can try to make do with less funding. “What we’ve seen over the last few years is social services raising the bar for when they’ll intervene because they haven’t got the resources,” said Adam Dyer, leader of Yeovil 4 Family, a community-run family support programme.

“I was told by one safeguarding lead at a school that, when they called social services to refer a suicidal child, they were asked: ‘Have they attempted suicide yet?’ And they said: ‘No, they haven’t, but they’re talking about it and they’ve got a plan.’ And they went, ‘Call us back when they’ve tried it.’”

Since 2012, South Somerset District Council has paid community-run organisations like Yeovil 4 Family to do some of its social work. After years of freezing the organisation’s funding, Somerset Council – which absorbed the district council in 2023 – has now had to cut the group off completely.

As councils are now discovering, cuts to discretionary services might save money in the short term, but cost more later on. The same is true of the human cost, which may only be apparent years later.

Priya Thamotheram, the head of Highfields Community Centre in Leicester, fears the funding reduction in youth services is partly to blame for one the worst outbreaks of ethnic conflict in the city for years.

Thamotheram has run the centre since the 1980s and has seen fights between teenagers from different backgrounds come and go. Most of the time, it has been enough just to bring parents around a table to sort things out. But the summer of 2022 was different: this time, tensions between young British Hindus and Muslims spilled over into several days of violence.

“Back in 2004, we were running 25 youth sessions a week,” he said. “Now the local authority doesn’t run a single one in the greater Highfield area, where the outbreak of violence happened.” The centre lost a £300,000 annual grant in 2015 when its council funding came to an end.

Younger children haven’t been spared from the impact either. Councils, including Leceister, have reduced funding for playgrounds and Sure Start centres, which offer parents support for babies and toddlers.

Sarah Russell, the deputy council leader in Leicester, first got involved in local politics through helping setting up a Sure Centre after the birth of her son. 

“It offered all sorts,” she recalls. “It had breastfeeding support, access to child care information, access to health visitors – a lot of it was actually peer support, being able to meet other mums.”

Russell’s experience with Sure Start inspired her to run as a Labour councillor, successfully being elected to represent Westcotes in 2007. A decade later, after becoming responsible for running children’s services in the council, she had to close the centre she set up – along with 11 others. 

“We just didn’t have the funding to keep it going,” she said. “On a personal level, and for my own community, that was a truly awful thing to have to do. But we had to prioritise the communities that needed the services the most elsewhere.”

Sure Start centres are funded through central government grants for early intervention support, which covers a range of schemes aimed at improving the life chances of children. Those grants have been cut significantly, leading to a 48% fall in local government spending on early intervention services between 2010 and 2020.

Councils could be reaping the costs of cutting preventative services for years to come. There is evidence that children supported by Sure Start centres have fewer health problems when they become teenagers.

And it’s not just Sure Start centres that have disappeared. Also affected are school nurses – specialist nurses trained in community health, which means they are responsible for coordinating services to tackle broader problems affecting children’s health in their local authorities.

Sallyann Sutton, professional officer at the School and Public Health Nurses Association, said a school nurse might have looked after five or six schools several years ago. Now, they could be responsible for as many as 15 because of funding cuts.

On top of that, nurses are seeing children with more complex and severe health issues. “We’re a developed country,” she said. “We shouldn’t be having malnourished children, but we are seeing children that are not eating enough. And these cases aren’t being picked up until they present in the acute sector.”

Sutton, who was herself a school nurse for 32 years, fears that without greater funding for early intervention services there could be a fall in life expectancy. “We could see children not living as long as their parents for the first time,” she said.

Snatched away

Among all the councillors we speak to, there is a sense that cuts have led to local democracy being snatched away by Westminster, even as it claims to have devolved power.

When David Cameron and Nick Clegg formed the coalition government in 2010, they declared that: “The time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today.” A year later, the Localism Act became law, giving councils “the legal capacity to do anything that an individual can do”.

In practice, that meant not a lot, because councils continue to be fiscally dependent on Westminster. London, for example, relies on strings-attached central government grants for 68.8% of its funding. New York, by comparison, only depends on central government for 26% of its budget, and Paris just 16.3%.

Councils can also generate revenue from council tax and business rates, an equivalent tax on business premises. But the Localism Act prevents councils from raising council tax annually above a cap – which is currently 5% – set by the government. 

Austerity, then, has seemingly overridden any attempt at decentralisation. Fourteen years ago, your council could do a lot more for you, especially if you were in a tight spot. But year after year, it has pared back what it offers to the point that some campaigners fear residents expect less in the first place.

Gary O’Donnell, a former Labour councillor in Leicester who now works as a mental health adviser, speaks to people every day who are in debt and don’t know who to call.

Years ago, he would have referred them to the council’s welfare advice service where staff could help them apply for benefits they are entitled to or even challenge unfair sanction decisions by the Department of Work and Pensions in court.

“When that’s gone, it makes a massive difference,” he said. “People don’t get what they’re entitled to and it’s driving them further into poverty. Navigating the benefits system, for lots of people, has become virtually impossible.”

Leicester City Council gutted its welfare rights team in 2015 by halving its funding and replacing most of its staff with untrained volunteers from the Citizens Advice Bureau. At the time, the council justified the move by claiming too many of its staff were on “relatively” high pay grades and said switching to volunteers would save it £200,000 a year.

But councillors, including Russell, then an assistant mayor, criticised the decision saying that there was no evidence to back up the claim that it would save a significant amount of money. A representative for Unison, the union representing council workers, said it “would impact on the most vulnerable in the city”.

Dan Norris, head of advice and rights at Child Poverty Action Group and a former welfare rights officer himself, said cuts had led to the service being “hollowed out” and “de-professionalised” across the country over the last ten years.

O’Donnell, who was elected in 2019, lost his seat in last year’s local elections after he quit the Labour Party to run as an independent councillor. The final straw for him was the council’s proposal to double energy bills for thousands of residents it supplies with gas through its district heating network. The council said it had subsided the rise in energy costs by £850,000.

He worries that councillors do not fully comprehend the level of deprivation in his ward, saying the rise was driving political resentment.

“People feel neglected,” he said. “They feel that when they ask for something, they never get it, whether that’s the council, the NHS, or Universal Credit. Every single day, they feel like everybody’s against them. And the fear I have is that they’ll be attracted to a right-wing populist, or even a fascist.”

O’Donnell points to Leicester Council’s customer service centre as an example of how it has withdrawn from communities. The centre sits in a handsome 1930s five-storey building on Granby Street, alongside several listed buildings, including the grandiose former National Provincial Bank, a symbol of the city’s former industrial prosperity.

When it first opened its doors in 2014, the centre proudly promised to help with enquiries about any public service, from social housing to school admissions, eight hours a day from Monday to Friday. Now, it is closed five days a week. A sign listing all the services it offers support for has been replaced with one that reads “by appointment only”.

PMP Magazine


▪ This piece was first published in openDemocracy and re-published in PMP Magazine on 3 March 2024 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Unsplash/Benjamin Elliott. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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