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Worried districts prepare to lobby Pickles

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District councils have launched a campaign to “justify their right to exist” to the new government, with senior councillors predicting budgets cuts far worse than previously anticipated.

The District Councils Network (DCN) is compiling an action plan to present to new communities secretary Eric Pickles.

The plans began to take shape at a meeting on Monday, facilitated by the Leadership Centre for Local Government and attended by Irene Lucas, director general for local government at the Department for Communities & Local Government.

One senior councillor told LGC that districts would need to show they could deal with budget cuts “in the region of 30%-40%” to “justify our right to exist” to Mr Pickles. “If that is the state of the finances, then we are going to have to show that we are up for it,” the councillor said.

“For example, there are districts sitting on quite large reserves, so how do we deploy them?”

He said the scenario was “significantly worse than the 15% to 20% cuts that people would have been happy with”.

One of Mr Pickles’ first acts was to order civil servants to find ways of halting the proposed creation of unitary councils in Norwich and Exeter.

However, in a sign of just how hard savings can be to achieve, plans for Rugby and Nuneaton & Bedworth BCs to share a chief executive have broken down in the wake of the local elections.

The DCN executive will finalise the precise details of the plans on 24 May, the day before the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government outlines its legislative agenda in the Queen’s Speech.

Councils were given a preview of what is likely to be included, with the publication of policy plans to create a ‘Big Society’.

The announcement, made by the Cabinet Office rather than the Department for Communities & Local Government, confirmed that local government will be given a general power of competence, as highlighted by LGC, and that regional spatial strategies would be abolished.

The Local Government Association welcomed the announcement but Labour group leaders said it was a “very worrying signal” that the LGA had not been invited to the launch.

Missing so far from the government’s policy announcements has been confirmation that the Conservatives’ proposed funding for a council tax cut will go ahead.

The Queen’s Speech could also bring forward legislation to carry out referendums on introducing elected mayors in the 12 largest metropolitan authorities in England.

In a statement, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers called for the new government not to “caricature the vocation” or “demean the status” of public sector managers.

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