Grant freeze could force service cuts

Council leader Edward Lister has warned two ministers that their funding plans for next year could force Wandsworth to cut services. Wandsworth faces a freeze in its main government grant at the same time as local government minister Nick Raynsford is threatening to cap
'excessive' council tax increases.

The conflict arises because education secretary Charles Clarke wants to push more money directly to schools. While the council welcomes extra help for school budgets this could leave nothing for other council services.

Because of the way central government grants are calculated, Wandsworth currently stands to receive no increases in general funding next year. This money is used to support scores of local services including those for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the disabled. The only
grant increases would be those going directly to schools.

Mr Raynsford has already warned councils that he may cap any hefty tax increases next year. Yet his department is the one responsible for setting the amount of grant local authorities receive.

The council estimates that an increase of one per cent in general grant is needed for non-education services to contain council tax increases below 10 per cent. Now Cllr Lister has called on the two ministers to resolve the contradictions in their different policies and ensure that Wandsworth is treated fairly:

"Ministers can't use the extra money for schools as an excuse to allow us no increases in funding for other equally vital services, nor can they expect us to keep council tax increases down when the biggest single factor is the amount of grant we get from central government.

"Nick Raynsford is on record as saying that he will use his powers to cap council tax bills - even in excellent authorities, but it would be reckless for any minister to create the financial
circumstances in which the council has no alternative but to put up tax levels - and then use his powers to limit that increase - so forcing the council into making massive cuts in services.

"We are asking for flexibility. Just another one per cent increase in grant would make all the difference."

The education secretary wants overall grant increases to at least match the money being 'passported' to schools. In this way he hopes to present this as genuinely new money which will not have to paid for out of higher council tax bills.

It is because Wandsworth is a 'floor' authority under the current grants formula - receiving only the minimum level of increase - that it fears the schools cash will be the only extra money available to Wandsworth.

21st September 2003

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