Continued cuts could put councils in court, Mets leader warns

16 Mar 15

A senior council leader has warned that local authorities will face legal challenges over failure to provide statutory services during the next parliament if funding cuts persist.

Sir Steve Houghton, the leader of Barnsley council and chair of the Special Interest Group of Municipal Local Authorities which represents 45 urban authorities, said continuing cuts would increase the gap between the ‘have and have not’ authorities.

‘[The gap has] been getting bigger over the last four to five years, and it’s going to get even bigger going forward,’ he warned.

‘In truth, for a lot of councils now we’re getting towards that cliff edge that the LGA has been forecasting for four or five years. We need a change and we need it early in the next parliament from whatever party is in government.’

If reductions continue, councils were likely to have to cut provision of statutory services to such a degree that they would face legal challenges. Statutory services that local authorities have a duty to provide include adult social care and child protection.

‘Councils can’t go bankrupt, but you will start to see increased challenges around service provision,’ he said. ‘You never know if you’ve broken the law until someone tests it in court.’

Although councils have faced legal challenges over cuts to statutory services since 2010, these have tended to focus on challenges to the consultation process, rather than on the extent of services.

However, Houghton said he expected councils would be forced to reduce services to the point where they get advice that they can go ‘thus far and no further’, which could then be challenged by service users.

‘I can see some key statutory services that, once councils struggle to deliver, people will start to challenge that.

‘What the outcome of that will be is difficult to predict, but it’s going to be very difficult now to meet statutory responsibilities in key areas, if the cuts continue as they have been doing.’

Central government funding for local authorities has been cut by 40% since 2010, according to the Local Government Association.

Houghton said the timescale for any legal challenges depended on the nature of reductions after the election.

‘If the cuts carry on the way they’ve been going then, in the next three to four years, you’re going to get some of that happening,’ he added.

Last month, Sigoma published its Protecting vital services: A fair and sustainable funding model report, which called for a new independent body to determine local authority funding based on ensuring provision of statutory services.

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