Councils across Yorkshire are facing huge overspends totalling more than £50m this year as town hall treasurers struggle to implement the most savage spending cuts in a generation.
Six months after local authorities across England finalised their toughest annual budgets in decades, a study of town hall spending since April reveals only four of Yorkshire’s 14 biggest councils are currently on course to meet the stringent savings targets forced upon them by the coalition Government.
With the other 10 councils – including Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Hull and York – projecting a combined overspending of £53.6m by the end of the financial year, there are fears that further emergency cuts to local services will be required over the coming months if town halls are to balance their books.
The news comes as the Yorkshire Post publishes the first in a series of reports revealing the human impact of the £1bn cuts forced upon the region’s councils by the Government in its controversial spending review last October.
Starting today with cuts to libraries, arts, leisure and tourism services, we reveal the people and the communities already suffering as councils rein in spending like never before.
We also highlight the residents who have successfully fought to save their local services.
A number of Yorkshire communities have even embraced David Cameron’s Big Society mantra, with armies of volunteers now in the process of taking over local facilities including libraries, rural bus services, swimming pools and hot meal delivery services.
But most communities have been unable or unwilling to do so.
In the past six months a total of 16 libraries, one leisure centre, two swimming pools, four tourist information centres and two homeless hostels have closed across Yorkshire.
This week saw the last-ever delivery runs for 10 of North Yorkshire County Council’s 11 mobile library vans, which for years have carried books out into the most isolated communities in England’s largest rural county.
Many more closures are still being implemented – and still being announced. Only last month, Wakefield Council announced the planned closure of 12 of its 25 libraries, and two weeks ago Calderdale launched a consultation over further cuts to its library service.
But despite the unprecedented scale of the ongoing cuts, the reality is that the majority of Yorkshire’s councils are still failing to balance their books.
One authority, Bradford City Council, is forecasting an overspend of more than £16m this year – nearly 40 per cent of the £44m cuts it has been forced to make to its 2011/12 budget by the Conservative-led Government.
Bradford officers have since devised a plan to reduce the overspending to just under £10m but the council must still find further, major cuts if it is to balance its books by the end of the year.
Council leader Ian Greenwood said: “The sheer scale and speed of the spending cuts handed down from Government has made them more difficult for councils to implement.
“In July, financial officers were suggesting a potential overspend of £16.5m, but proposed action that would reduce this figure to £9.4m. The council is actively managing the situation and closely monitoring spending with a view to bringing the budget in on balance but if anybody thinks that it is easy to make reductions on this scale, then they are badly mistaken.”
York Council is projecting a £4.2m overspend, representing a fifth of the £21m cut forced upon it by the Government this year.
Its new leader, James Alexander, who took control of the city when his Labour party swept into power in the May elections, agreed that implementing such massive cuts has been “very challenging” and said the Government should have given authorities more time to change the way they operate.
“It is difficult for local authorities,” he said. “We have had very little time to look at the service delivery model. If the Government had taken a steadier approach, we would have had more time to change the way we work.
“But it’s worth pointing out that the situation is not dissimilar to how it was this time last year. “I am confident we will be able to match the budget by the end of the year.”
It is clear that budgets will only be balanced with further cuts.
“We’re going back through the budget plans again,” said Chris Shaw, the new leader of North East Lincolnshire Council who was also elected in May, and where a £2.6m overspend is projected
“We’re looking at where we can take bits out and make savings.
“The budget we inherited was always going to be difficult. We have to save £15m. We’ve never had to make a saving like that before in the history of the council.”
Despite the unprecedented nature of the savings required by Government, those parts of the region which elected new council leaderships in May have all seen unpopular cuts reversed by the incoming regimes.
Coun Alexander said his Labour group has reversed almost £1m of cutbacks agreed by the previous Liberal Democrat rulers following their victory in the local elections.
In Hull, hugely controversial plans to close day centres and slash youth services were reversed by the new Labour leaders.
And in Sheffield, new finance chief Bryan Lodge said his incoming Labour councillors have reinstated axed PCSOs, ploughed money back into museum services and set up a £500,000 apprenticeship scheme.
“We’ve done everything we promised we would do before the elections,” he said.
Even incoming Conservatives have reversed planned cuts on the back of their election victory.
In North Lincolnshire, which bucked the national trend in May by switching from Labour to Tory leadership, incoming leader Liz Redfern has kept open care homes and tourist information centres which were due to close.
“It’s about being smarter in the way you work,” she said.