Robbing old Peter to pay for young Paul

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Give schools more money - and close a library or an old people's home? David Walker opens a two-page report on the painful budget decisions that most local authorities are having to make despite being promised an Pounds 835m windfall

Libraries, old people's homes, adult educati*on, and road maintenance are being hit as councils juggle their budgets in order to maintain spending on schools.

With most local authorities set to make their final budget decisions in a fortnight, the emerging pattern is of "standstill" allocations for schools paid for by council tax increases of more than 10 per cent and painful cuts, especially in social services, library and "non-school" education spending such as meals, transport and discretionary awards.

After a financial settlement relatively favourable to (predominantly Labour) big city councils the pain is most severe in county and rural areas. Most shire counties are reporting a rise in the standard spending assessment on education - the amount that Government allows local authorities to spend - but claim that this is doing little more than paying for the cost of extra pupils and covering inflation.

In nearly all counties there will have to be cutbacks in adult education, youth and community services and the subsidised use of school premises. But councils such as Leeds, Oxfordshire, where no party is in overall control, and Tory Cambridgeshire appear to be making a direct trade-off between spending on the old and on the young.

Hertfordshire (run by a joint Labour and LibDem administration) is typical of the shire counties. At its budget meeting on February 17, councillors are expected to approve a schools budget sufficient to cover the teachers' pay award, inflation and growth in pupil numbers without changing class sizes.

However, because the county's revenue support grant from Whitehall is down, they will also demand Pounds 2 million savings from the education department as a whole and Pounds 11m from social services, roads and other environmental services.

Councils are deriding the claim made by John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, that Chancellor Gordon Brown had allocated an Pounds 835m "extra" for education in England and Pounds 50m in Wales. What Mr Prescott did - in his role as Environment Secretary - was increase the amount councils could spend without, they say, providing the cash or officially allowing them to increase council taxes.

However, most councils - especially those under Labour control - are desperate to appear to be following Mr Prescott's lead and allocating more money to education.

"If, in some authorities schools feel worse off, it will give more edge to the Department for Education's wanting to ring-fence education money," a source at the Local Government Association warned. He predicted that "most" councils would end up achieving what the Government wanted.

One senior official said it had always been "nonsense" to focus on a single year. "Each authority will be setting its own budget year on year, trying to protect education. Some authorities which fail to deliver the increase this year did deliver more than others in previous years and have run out of devices."

In Waltham Forest, north-east London, where Labour is four seats short of an overall majority, everything is still up for grabs. Some councillors say that education, having been protected in previous years, cannot once again escape cuts. However, a new secondary school in Leyton is deemed an absolute priority even though its capital cost will have to be found from revenue spending.

Tory Surrey will increase council tax by 10.5 per cent and cut its social services budget but - as a spokesman said - the county "expects schools to be relatively happy with the settlement from us".

In Wales, leisure and highways appear set to be the losers again as councils channel the Government's Pounds 50m increase in education funding into schools while protecting social services.

Leisure centre closures are on the cards. Steve Dunster, head of finance at the Welsh Local Government Association, said: "All our authorities are saying they recognise this money is for schools and they will honour that commitment. "

The squeeze is on in Labour-controlled Islington. Its SSA for education rose by nearly Pounds 5m but its grant was cut by some Pounds 4m. Because there are elections in the London boroughs in May, councillors are determined to raise council tax by no more than 3.8 per cent. In order to increase the schools budget, Islington is planning sharp cuts in spending on leisure, libraries, refugee children, adult education and its famed system of neighbourhood offices.

Even in Barnsley, which did benefit relatively from the rate support grant settlement, "drastic" cuts in leisure services and highways are being considered so that the full increase can be passed to schools.

Cambridgeshire's schools are to get Pounds 2.5m more than last year. However, old people's homes in Wisbech and Peterborough will close.

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