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Braced for cuts

Local government has not come out of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review well. Richard Johnstone looks at the impact of cuts on highways departments.

The Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) has dealt a blow to many government departments’ spending budgets.

But transport experts are warning that many local authorities now face the prospect of cutting their transport and road maintenance budgets by as much as half.

The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (Adept) says the need for some local authorities to balance their books meant that they were having to make cuts of between 35% and 40% in their transport budgets, even before accounting for cuts to funding from the Department for Transport (DfT).

Double whammy

Transport committee chairman Tony Ciaburro believes this”double whammy” was the result of the fact that as much as two thirds of local authorities’ funding from central government has been earmarked for education, adult social care and waste services. This “passported” money has left little room for savings, so it was falling to other departments to make up the overall 26% cuts demanded of local government.

“There can always be improvements, but but’s not going to take 25% off budgets”

Tony Ciaburro, Adept

 

The DfT has said highway maintenance should be prioritised by local authorities, and has announced funding of more than £3bn over the four year CSR period for this.

The DfT adds that this “takes account of the significant scope for efficiencies, for example through combining purchasing power of local authorities to drive down prices”.

Ciaburro says these efficiencies would produce savings of around a 14%. While there’s room for savings, he says that “If they think it can keep up with the overall cuts, they are in cloud-cuckoo land. Most progressive authorities are driving through efficiencies in any event. We have changed our maintenance plans and, yes, there can always be improvements but it’s not going to take 25% off budgets.”

Cuts next month

Councils will find out their final budgets when the Local Government Finance Settlement for 2011/12 is published next month. But some have already said that they expect highways budgets to be hit hard. These include Dorset County Council, which says it has already identified £21M of savings but had to find another £28M, and Somerset County Council, which is already planning to cut its road maintenance budget by £46M over three years. Cumbria County Council plans to cut £50M to £60M by 2015, East Sussex County Council £60M over three years, and Derbyshire County Council up to £120M over the next four years.

Ciaburro adds that the cuts to local authority transport spending would also likely include funding for speed cameras and council subsidies for bus services, although he adds that “everything will be up in the firing line”.

He says some local government finance officers regard road maintenance as “a tap that can be turned on and off”, but adds: “It can be turned off but can’t be as easily turned on.”

Each local authority’s share of the DfT’s £3bn road maintenance budget will be decided following a review. This will examine whether there should be changes in the funding formula for local highways. The issue is principally whether to remove the consideration of local road conditions in the formula for deciding how much money each council gets.

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