True scale of council challenge over cuts revealed

A BRUTAL £500m programme of cuts has been launched throughout the region's councils after emergency budgets revealed the reality of the Government's drastic savings policy will be even tougher than first thought.

Town halls across the region were preparing to make multi-million pound savings ahead of the comprehensive spending review (CSR) but many local authorities expected to be able to spread the pain evenly over a four- year period.

However Chancellor George Osborne "frontloaded" the cuts – demanding half of the 1.1bn he has slashed from the region's council budgets by March 2012.

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Finance officers have been forced to make drastic revisions to their plans and a Yorkshire Post investigation has found authorities like Leeds and Sheffield are each faced with balancing an estimated funding gap of 80m next year.

Council leaders have accused the Government of targeting the North and using "smoke and mirrors" to hide the true extent of cutbacks to public services, claiming such immediate cuts will hit the front line and some of Yorkshire's most vulnerable people.

Next year Barnsley Council must save 25m of its total 47m cut. Leader Stephen Houghton said: "These cuts are much bigger than we first anticipated and much quicker. We're thinking about cutting care packages for the elderly, which under normal circumstances you just would never consider. It's a shocking position we are in and very different from the spin the Government is putting on this.

"These poorer areas are bearing the brunt of the cuts and especially poor areas in the North. They are being deliberately targeted."

At Leeds City Council, the revised 80m funding shortfall represents a 30m increase on previous estimates made before Mr Osborne's announcement.

Council leader Keith Wakefield said: "It is an enormous challenge. This is far worse than I ever expected. Local government is shouldering more than its fair share.

"Voluntary redundancy has been offered and we've had a response from 1,500 people."

The CSR announced a 28 per-cent cut in council funding by 2015, with around 14 per cent being cut next year. That means that to balance the books in 16 months time, Bradford will have to save 65m, Hull 40m and both Doncaster and Kirklees 30m each.

The Office for Budgetary Responsibility has estimated 500,000 public sector jobs will go during the next four years nationwide, and the Local Government Association has suggested that 20 per cent will be in local authorities.

Bradford Council leader Ian Greenwood accused the Government of a "cynical manipulation of the figures to keep the public in the dark".

"By shifting the bulk of the cuts to the first year they are making it diabolically difficult to plan a proper response," he said. "The public should be in no doubt that the unprecedented scale of these cuts will affect everyone."

Mehboob Khan, leader of Kirklees council, said: "The magnitude of the cuts is absolutely enormous. The way it was announced is dishonest. The Government has made use of smoke and mirrors – trying to pull the wool over local people's eyes."

A Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: "Local authorities have been aware for some time that funding reductions were imminent and will have been looking at a range of scenarios for reducing budgets next year.

"We have guaranteed a 200m capitalisation fund in 2011-12 to help local authorities manage the costs of restructuring in the short term to release savings over the long term."