`Scrap' council cash limits

17th February 1995 at 00:00
Tory MPs urge ministers to act as parents and governors demonstrate against cuts. Clare Dean reports.

Ministers are under growing pressure from Conservative MPs to scrap the limit imposed on local authority spending as the outcry from parents and governors over education cuts this week escalates.

The move has support from all sections of the party and Department for Education officials have privately admitted that the stringent limits on council spending are the main cause of the cuts.

Conservative MPs across the country have been bombarded with protests against the projected cuts of Pounds 700 million with campaigners now threatening to focus on constituency associations with the aim of getting sitting MPs deselected.

A national campaign group of parents, governors and teachers called FACE - Fighting Cuts in Education - next month intends to light bonfires in every authority while headteachers next week plan to release details of how the cuts are affecting schools.

"The Government has seriously underestimated the strength of feeling," said Seamus Crowe, spokesman for FACE. "We have tapped into a real source of anger."

Two people were arrested for public order offences this week after more than 2,000 protesters lobbied Oxfordshire County Council, which is facing cuts of Pounds 23.5m and which was unable to set a budget despite meeting for eight hours.

Its officials have been instructed to seek advice on making a legal challenge to the spending limit. Shropshire intends to set a budget Pounds 6 million above its cap, and has the backing of its Tory councillors.

The call to scrap the cap, which was introduced 11 years ago, is being led by Jim Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative backbench education committee.

Warwickshire, which includes his Rugby and Kenilworth constituency, estimates that if its spending limit was raised by just 1 per cent and the money put into education some 100 jobs could be saved.

Mr Pawsey said: "I have been talking to ministers about scrapping the cap and I am encouraged by what they have been saying.

"I believe that the local authority should be much more responsive to its electorate and I believe that scrapping the cap would make them much more accountable."

Central government plans for total local government spending in 199596 would mean Pounds 1.5 billion less than is currently being spent, even before the 2.7 per cent rise in teachers' pay - announced last week - is taken into account.

The Government has refused to fund the award, which will add Pounds 294m to the Pounds 11 billion pay bill. Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, has already warned that up to 10,000 jobs could go.

Most local authorities are only able to increase their budgets by 0.5 per cent next year before reaching their limit, despite the fact that pupil numbers have risen by 1.5 per cent. Scrapping the cap, which would enable councils to raise revenue from the council tax, could be done without the need for legislation.

It would, however, represent a huge political climbdown for the Government which has pledged to rein in local spending, but it would not have to find the money. The burden would fall on council taxpayers.

According to Mr Pawsey, every 1 per cent spent above current limits would result in a 3.2 per cent increase on council-tax bills. He wants one-third of councillors to face election each year as a safeguard if the spending caps are lifted.

Peter Morris, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, has told Mrs Shephard: "If the Government is not prepared to put enough money into every part of the school system, then you should at least allow local authorities to make up local shortfalls from local taxes."

* Small primary schools will be among those hardest hit by budget cuts, according to the National Association of Head Teachers, writes Linda Blackburne. The association will next week highlight the plight of the primary sector which will suffer disproportionately because it has fewer staff.

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