Leeds Council “on brink of meltdown” as it weathers £45m of cuts

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LEEDS CITY Council is “at the brink of financial meltdown” as it weathers “near-impossible” cuts to its spending, its leader has warned.

Ordinary people “who are already suffering” will bear the brunt of a £45.4m cut to the council’s annual budget, leader Coun Keith Wakefield said, with a 1.99 per cent council tax rise, an increase in council housing rents of 2.88 per cent, a rise in nursery fees and 450 job losses.

By March 2016, Leeds will have received approximately £180m less in total core funding over the last five years - a drop of more than 40 per cent.

A furious council leader told The Yorkshire Evening Post spending decisions had become “harder and harder” as the city negated an above-average cut in its core funding from the Government, but pledged that the rise in council tax would go towards protecting the city’s most vulnerable children and elderly.

Coun Wakefield said: “The budget-setting challenge this year has been the most difficult I have ever been involved with, facing choices none of us would ever want to make but there is simply no other way, the money is just not there anymore.”

The council leader said it was “deeply unfair” that Leeds and other authorities in the north were hit with massive cuts, while some affluent parts of the country in the south “get either no cuts or even an increase in their ‘spending power’.”

“We have done everything we can to try and protect our most vulnerable residents as best we can, but I’m afraid it’s a near-impossible task and I’m sad to say over the next 12 months people will be suffering as a result,” he said. “We wish there was another way but all the choices are just brutally hard now, and if as some say we are only halfway through austerity I fear for the future of councils and public services as more and more nationally-respected groups and bodies are saying this is already dangerously unsustainable.”

The loss of 450 jobs will take the number of council staffing cuts in the last five years to 2,500 by next March. While so far the Council has managed to avoid compulsory redundancies, Coun Wakefield the “forecast doesn’t look good” for next year as working efficiencies had already been made.

He warned: “If we continue with this Government, we will be going back to 1930s levels of spending on public services - that is disastrous.”

Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins said: “We have continued to deliver a fair settlement to every part of the country – north and south, rural and urban, city and shire – and the truth is that councils have continued to balance their budgets while public satisfaction with services has been maintained.

“Every bit of the public sector needs to do their bit to pay off deficit left by the last Administration, including local government which accounts for a quarter of all public spending. But so far over this Parliament Leeds Council’s spending, excluding education, has actually increased in cash terms.”

The budget - the key figures

Council tax is to go up by 1.99 per cent.

* Six per cent cut to highways maintenance.

* Council housing rents to rise by 2.88 per cent.

* 450 council jobs to go.

* Nursery fees up by 5.1 per cent.

* An extra £500,000 for vulnerable children and young people.

* £800,000 for a Local Welfare Support Scheme to help those facing severe financial hardship.

* £250,000 to help disabled people living in adapted properties who have had their housing benefit cut stay in their own home.

Children and vulnerable to be protected

FRONTLINE services for the city’s most vulnerable people will be protected while other services will be slashed to make up for the shortfall.

The council said it listened to a public consultation while putting its budget plan together, which told them services for vulnerable children, young people and adults should be prior ti sed.

Despite a 5.1 per cent rise in nursery fees, all of the city’s 57 children’s centres will stay open, and the council has committed 60 per cent of its total budget to children’s services and adult social care, including extra investment in a severe financial hardship scheme.

But savings must be made - the highways maintenance budget will be slashed by six per cent, while opening hours and leisure centre and contact centres will be reduces. Grants to voluntary groups such as arts organisations while be cut.

Pudsey Civic Hall and Yeadon Tarn Sailing Centre could be transferred to community management, and community centres in the city are currently under review.

Coun Wakefield added: “We think Leeds has tried its best to create jobs, create investment, to keep the city vibrant, and tried its best to protect public services, but inevitably five years of reductions in our grants are making our decisions harder and harder.”

The budget will be discussed by the council’s executive board next Wednesday before going to the full council meeting on February 25.