Councils ‘heading for the rocks’ due to cuts

Sheffield MP Clive Betts.
Sheffield MP Clive Betts.
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Sheffield MP and former city council leader Clive Betts this week raised the “realistic prospect” of some local authorities no longer having the money to run services such as museums, art galleries and leisure facilities.

He told the House of Commons that English local government “is heading for the rocks” because of the Government’s “unsustainable approach”.

Mr Betts, who is chairman of the Commons’ Communities and Local Government Committee and was leader of Sheffield City Council from 1987 to 1992, said a significant number of councils – “of all shapes, sizes and political controls – are rapidly approaching a lack of financial viability”.

“The prospect of the end of all local discretionary services, such as museums and art galleries, sport and leisure facilities, parks and recreation, in some areas is now a realistic prospect

“We are not talking about the odd council failing, but the prospect of a systemic failure of local government as a whole.”

In a Commons’ debate on funding for local authorities, the Labour MP for Sheffield South East called for an all-party approach to exploring ways of making local government more financially independent and accountable to their local communities.

At present, the scale and distribution of Government spending cuts was “unfair”.

But he was also critical of both recent Labour governments and the current coalition government for cancelling council tax revaluations, and for the coalition continuing to cap councils’ housing revenue accounts, which need to be lifted so that councils can invest in local affordable housing.

Locally Mr Betts was especially critical of deputy Prime Minister and Hallam MP Nick Clegg whom, he claimed, had “consistently chosen to stand up for the Liberal Democrat interest in the south of England rather than to stand up for the people and city of Sheffield”.

Sheffield is making £50m of spending cuts this year, with Don Valley Stadium and libraries among the high profile casualties.

The Lib Dems say the city faces “some tough choices” but blames years of excessive Labour Government spending for the current financial restrictions and claims that libraries could be saved if the council cut its “multi-million pound office makeover” programme.

They said this week that £330,000 could have been used to save up to eight libraries instead of Labour “siphoning” it on “half-empty” office blocks as part of the “failed” Burngreave New Deal project.

Labour deputy leader Coun Harry Harpham accused the Lib Dems of hypocrisy, saying the decision to take the buildings under the council was made when they were in power.

“We are trying to ensure that the buildings are sensibly used as part of our accommodation strategy which aims to save £30m over 10 years by consolidating council departments in fewer buildings.”