PUBLIC services already creaking under the weight of Government austerity cuts are also under increasing threat from spiralling petrol and diesel prices, campaigners, councillors and MPs warn today.
Dire predictions have been issued in the wake of figures obtained by the Yorkshire Post which show the staggering increases in fuel bills faced by some local authorities in recent years.
Many councils are facing deep spending cuts as the Government tackles the country’s deficit, but are also being forced to absorb inflation-busting price rises at the pumps.
The collective fuel bill for 20 councils has rocketed from £20m to £27.5m in the past five years alone, and prices continue to increase as budgets and services are slashed and council tax is frozen.
Statistics reveal the eye-watering increases borne by authorities, with East Riding Council seeing its costs rise by a massive 128 per cent, from £1.2m in 2002/03 to £2.7m a decade later.
In Leeds, the cost of fuel has gone up by almost £2m, or 67 per cent, over a 10-year period, from £2,89m to £4.83m, while in Kirklees the bill has leapt by 113 per cent from £1.3m in 2002/03 to £2.7m last year.
Petrol and diesel prices are said to be a “ticking timebomb” for council finances. Further pressure would have been applied this week had the Government gone ahead with its planned 3p per litre increase in fuel duty which was postponed in June.
The increase is on hold until next January, but MP Ann McIntosh, who represents Thirsk, Malton and Filey and has campaigned for fairer fuel prices in rural areas, said the Chancellor should “think carefully” before imposing it as some services are already at breaking point.
Until 2010 town halls had benefited from rising budgets which helped to offset fuel prices and other pressures, but that is no longer the case.
The Local Government Association said: “Councils are having to find significant amounts of money to pay for fuel and in many cases have no choice but to dip into reserves because grants have started to drop just as fuel prices take off.”
The LGA said some of the price rises could be mitigated by increases in charges to taxpayers but room for manoeuvre is limited as council tax remains static as a result of Government policy.
Former Top Gear presenter Quentin Willson, who speaks for pressure group FairFuelUK, said acting on fuel duty would not only ease the burden on public services but help lift the country from the “despair” of double dip recession.
“The issue here is the price of fuel is embedded in the price of everything. But what people don’t realise is they pay a rise twice, once when they fill up their car and again to fuel their public services.
“As well as cutting duty to help the consumer, the Government must act to protect councils and public services from collapsing under the yoke of the second highest fuel duty in the world.”
Double whammy on fuel: Page 6; Comment: Page 16.