Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is facing resistance from Liberal Democrat council leaders and group leaders over the pace and scale of the coalition government’s spending cuts.
An open letter signed by 88 local Lib Dem heads, including 17 town hall leaders, warned that the cuts would damage the economy and hit the most vulnerable.
They accused communities secretary Eric Pickles of “letting down” users of council services and refusing to work with councillors.
“These cuts will have an undoubted impact on all front-line council services, including care services to the vulnerable,” they said in the letter, published in The Times.
“Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making savings to the public in a way that can protect local economies and the front line, the cuts are structured in such a way that they will do the opposite.”
In the letter, which lays bare the depth of frustration felt by a highly influential section of the Lib Dems, the signatories claimed that local government was playing its part in tackling the country’s deficit and advancing the coalition’s aim of the Big Society.
They accused Mr Pickles of being “unwilling to lead the change that’s so desperately needed”.
They continued: “Local government has made efficiency savings of 3% in each of the past eight years - in stark contrast to the runaway spending of central government under the previous administration.
“We’ve also been planning for further saving since the true state of the economy became apparent six months ago. What has been delivered is a difficult cuts package across all government departments but clearly the most severe is to local government.”
It was also claimed that harsh cuts to the local government settlement in the coming financial year means councils do not have enough time to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base or ease staff cuts without forces redundancies.
“The secretary of state’s role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us,” added the officials.
The council leaders called for direct discussions with Mr Pickles, rather than “continue with the gunboat diplomacy” they were being forced to take.
The leader of the Liberal Democrat group at the Local Government Association, Richard Kemp, said the councillors were not seeking to split the party, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I certainly have no intention of leaving the party.”
Councils believe they could absorb a 7% cut in central government grant, but would struggle with the 12% reduction planned for the coming year.
“Because it is front-loaded, we are being forced to make cuts that I think all of us - including the government - would regret,” said Mr Kemp.
“We are not deficit deniers, we know this government is in an incredibly difficult position and we want to enter into partnership with government. But we can only do that if the government does acknowledge the scale of the problems we face.
“David Cameron and Nick Clegg did that last week, but we continually get trashed by the Secretary of State for local government [Eric Pickles], who says this is an easy option.”
Mr Kemp is due to meet Mr Clegg later today to discuss his concerns.
Lib Dem communities minister Andrew Stunell called on the party not to fall out over “pointless debate”.
He said the “woeful” deficit inherited from Labour meant “very tough times” for all public services.
“Whilst I fully understand the real challenges councils face I think it will be much better to direct all our energy to solving these problems rather than falling out between ourselves,” he said.
“I know just how keen every one of my DCLG ministerial colleagues is to end Whitehall domination of local government and we are strongly committed to delivering that quickly.
“It would be a real lost opportunity if we let that slip while we engage in pointless debate. Let’s get round the table and just sort this out.”
The letter comes as divisions in the party were also under the spotlight over the government’s handling of the banks, after Lord Oakeshott quit as the Lib Dems’ Treasury spokesman in the Lords.