Labour tells cap-busters to cut budgets

30th May 1997 at 01:00
The Government is taking a tough line on council spending. Clare Dean reports

Labour has signalled its determination to be tough on spending by singling out three local education authorities who have broken Government-imposed capping limits.

Environment Secretary John Prescott has told Oxfordshire, Somerset and Warwickshire that they will be required to cut their budgets - unless they can convince him otherwise.

He gave them 28 days to decide if they will accept the proposed caps which would cut Pounds 6m from Oxfordshire's budget, Pounds 3.3m from Somerset and Pounds 2m from Warwickshire.

Mr Prescott said he believed the move to be reasonable and achievable and added: "This demonstrates that we are taking our commitments on spending very seriously."

Labour pledged to abolish "crude" council-tax capping in its election manifesto but made it clear that it would have to accept the local government spending for this year, pending a review.

Just before the election it claimed that more than a third of England's local authorities faced cuts in the amount of cash available to schools from central government.

The decision was greeted with dismay in Oxfordshire where politicians, council officers and heads believed the county - already one of the lowest-spending authorities - deserved a better deal.

Since 1990 it has seen cuts to its budgets totalling more than Pounds 50m. This year's cuts of Pounds 12m will soar to Pounds 18m if the cap is imposed.

If the spending is capped Pounds 1m will be taken from school budgets, transport for the over-16s could be scrapped, Pounds 1m will go from road maintenance budgets and there will be more cuts to the county's library service.

Keith McClellan, head of The Cooper School in Bicester and chair of the Oxfordshire Secondary School Headteachers' Association, said: "We are deeply disappointed, to put it politely."

In practical terms the decision means that schools will lose Pounds 13 per pupil. Governors have already set budgets spending up to the limit and many now have submitted deficit budgets.

Around half a dozen schools have already cut the length of the school week to balance the books; some may now appeal to parents to make up the missing Pounds 13 per pupil.

"We shall be offering what support we can to the county council to appeal against this decision. We shall not give up until all hope is lost," said Mr McClellan.

John Harwood, Oxfordshire's chief executive, added: "We are not asking the Government for more money.

"We are simply seeking its approval to continue levying council tax at the rate set by councillors earlier this year - which householders are already paying.

"The message we are getting time and again is that people would sooner pay that little bit more than see further cuts to schools and social services budgets."

Warwickshire, which wants to use the Pounds 2m to meet the capital costs of its huge school reorganisation programme, wants to put its case directly to Hilary Armstrong, the minister for local government and housing.

Ian Bottrill, chair of the county's policy committee, said: "We are disappointed with today's announcement, but we always expected that we might have to go to the final stage of appeal.

"We will do everything we can, with Warwickshire's MPs, to ensure the Pounds 2m extra spending for the benefit of the county's schoolchildren is approved. "

In Somerset, officials said the main reason the authority had set a cap-busting budget was to protect schools. It was disappointed that the decision had come from a Government which has made education a key priority.

Chris Clarke, council leader, said: "The new Government promised a lighter capping regime. Somerset's asking for an extra 1.2 per cent cannot possibly be regarded as other than reasonable."

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