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Paying the cost of austerity in the Black Country and Staffordshire

Staffordshire | News | Published:

Crime-fighting wardens, road repairs and care services all face swingeing cuts this year as councils take the axe to services to cope with dramatic reductions in their budgets.

Hundreds of redundancies loom as councils deal with the fourth year of austerity in their funding from central Government.

Councils in the Black Country face losing £135.70 per household in funding, according to the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (Sigoma) which provides a collective voice for 45 urban authorities in the Midland, northern and south-coast regions of England.

Town hall bosses across the Black Country have complained that their areas have been hit harder than more affluent parts of the country as some of the cuts have been to specific grants intended to help deprived communities.

In many areas, the message to people is if you want something done, do it yourself.

Dudley Council wants people to organise their own litter picks. The council, as well as Wolverhampton City Council and Staffordshire County Council, wants volunteers to help run libraries.

Sandwell Council is looking at the same thing, reviewing the future use of five libraries that could either shut, be moved or downscaled this year.

The Labour adminstrations running councils in the Black Country talk up the benefits of the new way of doing things during consultations but express anger at some of the more controversial service cuts they are making to save money.

Dudley's leader, councillor Pete Lowe, for example, argues in favour of a plan to hand over the running of Brierley Hill Civic Hall to the Dudley Council for Voluntary Service.

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He said most people who came to see the likes of comedian Jason Manford were not concerned about who managed the venue but were interested about whether or not they could go to it.

Even so, Labour points the finger of blame for the more controversial cuts straight at the Coalition Government. Children's services, lollipop patrols and more are under threat because of cuts across the West Midlands.

According to the settlements each council will get this year, published in December, Sandwell Council will have almost £30 million less in Government grants in 2015/16 compared with this year.

The picture is similar across the Black Country, with all authorities losing at least £20 million each in the coming financial year compared with last year.

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Councillor Steve Eling, deputy leader of Sandwell Council, said: "It is not the same picture in better off areas that have not had anything like the cuts that we have. If the Government continues to take this much money out of local government, front line services are going to suffer."

Councillor Andrew Johnson, finance spokesman for Wolverhampton City Council, said: "The specific grants that previously targeted areas of the greatest deprivation have been withdrawn.

"Even if we had just kept the grants at last year's levels, we would not have had to make anything like the cuts we are being forced to make."

The city council says it has no more money left to continue funding the neighbourhood wardens who patrol the streets and deal with environmental crime.

David Sparks, former Dudley Council leader and chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "One of the most insidious aspects is in the care sector. People will have to wait longer to see their care assistant or nurse."

Valerie Vaz, MP for Walsall South, said: "The Government has cut Walsall Council's financial settlement for 2015-16 by 15.46 per cent.

"This is twice the national average. The settlement for 2014/15 is £149 million and is being slashed to £126 million for 2015/16. In total, £23 million is being taken from the settlement. Walsall council has also been forced to find £86 million in cuts over the next four years due to the cuts from this Government. This will dramatically effect local services.

"We have an outstanding Sure Start centre in Palfrey which plays a vital role in helping new parents and is a focus for them, but all that is under threat.

"Some families in Walsall cannot even afford a computer or the internet, so children go to libraries after school. How will we raise standards and aspirations if we deny people, especially children, access to knowledge?

"Those vital services can affect the long-term needs of society, and the budget cuts are short-term thinking that in the end will undermine society."

Sir Steve Houghton, chairman of Sigoma, said "The Government continues to penalise councils trying to serve some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

"Whilst claiming to be giving a 'fair' settlement, the Government has shown complete disregard for the mounting pressure faced by those councils and the pain it is causing their residents."

But Conservative leader for Staffordshire, councillor Philip Atkins, says things are getting better.

The county council has to trim its budget by £100 million over five years but councillor Atkins said: "We've been expecting this since 2008 and 2009 when the economy took a turn for the worse. Anyone who thought things could just carry on as they were was living in a different world.

"We're in a good position to manage and we're spending £20 million more on care despite having to find £17 million of savings.

"But things are improving. Unemployment is down dramatically. There are more jobs coming in to the area."

Local government minister Kris Hopkins has rubbished the idea that councils are being unfairly hit.

He said the cuts were less than last year, adding: "This is a fair settlement that continues to recognise the responsibility of local government to find sensible savings and make better use of these resources."

Councils will also be offered a grant the equivalent of a one per cent increase in their council tax if they freeze the rates.

For some, like Sandwell, to accept this would mean the fifth consecutive freeze.

Other councils such as Wolverhampton, however, have already increased council tax by the maximum allowed, just under two per cent. If they wanted to raise it by a bigger margin, they would have to hold a costly referendum.

Wolverhampton's draft budget so far banks on a rise of the maximum 1.99 per cent every year for the next four years in order to balance the books.

However, Dudley Council is planning to freeze the rates again, despite having to find £27 million worth of cuts.

It is predicted that if the council agrees to a council tax freeze for 2015/16, the authority would receive £1,154,632 from the Government.

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