New round of spending cuts "horrendous", warns top Tory

Eric Pickles and Father Christmas Image copyright BBC/Thinkstock

Can you imagine Communities Secretary Eric Pickles as Father Christmas?

On Thursday, many local councils and police forces will be watching his Commons statement on future funding, and hoping for some seasonal cheer.

With a general election looming, the Communities Secretary may sprinkle some magic dust. But many in local government aren't raising their hopes.

The Tory leader of Leicestershire, Councillor Nick Rushton, has described the scale of proposed spending cuts for his county council as "horrendous".

Seven hundred more jobs, on top of the 700 already chopped over the last four years, face being axed as County Hall struggles with its budget.

His council's having to find £91m in savings from April. Libraries, highway maintenance, transport and waste disposal are in the firing line. But the authority still has a funding cuts shortfall totalling £9m.

"That means very tough decisions unless we receive extra government grants," said Mr Rushton.

"We are the lowest funded county council. If we received the average level, we would get an extra £37m a year."

Image caption Nick Rushton has described the scale of proposed spending cuts for Leicestershire County Council as "horrendous"

The call for fair funding is also heard from Lincolnshire Police. Its chief constable Neil Rhodes voiced his concern over the scale of cuts in a letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, and then went public.

The county's 1,100 officers cover the third largest policing area in the country. The chief constable warned that an additional funding squeeze will cut the number of his police officers by one-fifth.

"In two or three years' time, we will be facing a reduction of just over £10m and that's simply impractical. It's a gap we can't bridge. It'll make this force almost unsustainable," he told me.

In response, the Police Minister Mike Penning said: "Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary recently found that forces can successfully manage to balance their books while protecting the frontline and delivering reductions in crime.

"The government is already conducting a fundamental review of the way funding is allocated between force areas. This work is ongoing."

Image copyright Lincolnshire Police
Image caption Chief Constable Neil Rhodes said he would be forced to cut police officers further

Lincolnshire's police and crime commissioner Alan Hardwick is pressing for urgent talks with government ministers. Once again, Lincolnshire - like Leicestershire - claims the funding formula puts their rural county at a disadvantage.

"I would like to think we have given government ministers enough warning. It needs to be a very public warning so they can take a long, hard look at how police forces are funded," Mr Hardwick said.

"The people of Lincolnshire don't want to see their police merged with another force or sacrificed."

Both Lincolnshire and Leicestershire have considerable Conservative firepower to call on. Both counties have influential Tory ministers on their patch. Yet despite the heavy duty lobbying, the fair funding argument is still waiting to deliver.

After the Chancellor's mini budget statement, local government and our police forces are destined for another bout of austerity for the duration of the next parliament.

But it's nearly Christmas after all, and maybe Eric Pickles - in his spending announcement for local government - may spring a few surprises.