Councils have ‘demonstrated a high degree of financial resilience’ in the face of reduced funding as the result of the coalition government’s austerity policy, says a report released today by the Audit Commission, but austerity has led councils to concentrate on statutory services to the detriment of cultural spending.
In the most recent budgets, ‘cultural and related services’ have seen the largest reduction in local government spending, representing 31% of the total spending reductions made for 2013/14.
In the four years since 2010/11, the cultural and related sector has seen a spending reduction of almost a quarter (24.4%) in real terms.
With a number of uncertainties facing local authorities’ income in future years, the full effect of the coalition government’s austerity programme ‘is not yet known’.
In real terms, government funding to councils has reduced by £6bn, or 19.6%, since 2010/11. Councils serving the most-deprived areas have borne the brunt of reductions in funding relative to spending over that time.
In this context, the report says that councils have tended to reduce spending on non-statutory services more than on statutory services, with the result that children’s and adult social care have both been insulated from cuts more than, for example, cultural spending. But since even these areas are not immune from cuts, cultural spending can be expected to come under yet greater pressure as austerity continues.
The Audit Commission represents the views of auditors, and as such the report also highlights concerns over the ability of one in ten councils to even deliver their budgets in 2013/14.
The Audit Commission’s chairman, Jeremy Newman, said: ‘As social care accounts for an increasing proportion of councils’ total service spending, it will be harder to protect this service from spending reductions in the future. With less income, councils continue to face risks to meet their legal obligations and the needs of their local communities.’
Underpinning austerity was the idea that, in many cases, the ‘Big Society’ would be able to defray some of the impact of cuts, for instance through volunteering. Today’s report did not look at the impact of funding cuts on services so does not take a view on how service levels or standards have been affected by the budget reductions.
Earlier this year, the Local Government Association’s chairman, Sir Merrick Cockell, responded to chancellor George Osborne’s spending round announcement for 2015/16 by saying that: ‘Some councils will simply not have enough money to meet all their statutory responsibilities … Services such as culture and leisure facilities, school support, road maintenance and growth-related programmes will bear the brunt of these cuts.’