Communities in Britain bracing for deep spending cuts
By Shelley Jofre
Council cutbacks 'risk discontent'
We have known all along that the end of the election campaign would give way to the reality of deep cuts in public spending in a bid to reduce the UK's staggering £163 billion deficit - a figure that amounts to £6,000 per household.
Now we know that those cuts are to come sooner rather than later after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition led by Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that £6bn of savings will be made this fiscal year alone.
And local councils are bracing to bear the brunt.
While the Lib Dems argued during the election campaign that NHS spending should not be immune to those cuts, the new coalition has agreed to increase NHS spending in real terms every year of the parliament.
The side-effect of this will be that other areas of public spending - including local councils - will face much harsher cuts than if the savings had been spread across all areas of expenditure, according to Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics.
"You're talking about cuts within local government of perhaps 20 to 25% or more on some service areas, much more than in most other parts of the public sector," Mr Travers told Panorama.
In recent weeks, as Britain's politicians spent time on the campaign trail, I too travelled around Britain on a mission to investigate the looming public spending cuts our political leaders were reluctant to talk about during the election.
From Fife to Northampton, the Wirral to London, what I found is that council taxpayers are not ready to sit back and watch much-loved public services disappear without a fight.
Earlier this year, the BBC surveyed councils across England and gained a taste of the scale of cuts to come across the UK.
The results forecasted at least 25,000 council jobs in England that will be under threat in the next three to five years.
The forecast is based on answers from 49 councils with a combined workforce of 256,000, suggesting cuts of 10%.
'Paid our dues'
While the worst cuts are yet to come, there are already many examples of people across the UK going into battle with councils that have begun to put the services they hold dear on the chopping block.
Are we going to close a library, are we going to give less care for the elderly...well of course when you start to see the real choices, people say well actually I could possibly live with that pothole
Marge Lacey, a 72-year-old from Barnet in north London, is one of them.
Mrs Lacey lives a quiet life with her budgies in a small flat in sheltered accommodation. She has asthma and chose to live there specifically because there is a live-in warden.
But last year, the Conservative-run council voted to change the warden service to a mobile one. The council said it wanted to spread its increasingly limited resources more evenly around the borough's elderly population.
Marge and her neighbours were furious and fought the decision all the way to the High Court, reiterating their message on a recent protest march through central London.
They argued the decision did not take into account the impact on disabled residents and late in 2009, the High Court agreed and the plans were shelved, showing that direct action can get results.
But wardens have only been guaranteed for the next financial year and Marge knows her battle is not over yet.
"Surely there is some other way, if they're any good at finances at all, of finding the funds. We've paid our dues as far as I'm concerned and we should be getting what we're entitled to," she said.
And therein lies the trouble. We all know that big savings have to be made but everyone has their own idea of which services are essential and which are not.
Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council recently held a consultation exercise called "You Choose".
In Kettering, the council warns that potholes might have to go unrepaired
The idea was to hand over to council taxpayers some responsibility for the tough choices ahead.
Paul Blantern, the council's Director of Customer and Community Services, said: "We're now having to take bones out, because we've cut all the flesh you now we've done all the efficiencies and so now it is stark choices for customers that we can do this for you but we can't do that for you."
The consultation exercise found that one of the main priorities for local people is improving the county's roads.
Kettering resident Robert Daniels can hear in his living room the noise of cars bumping over the potholes outside.
"I don't think it's very good at all you know I think it's time they done something with it."
But it would cost £380m to bring the county's roads up to scratch and the council needs to save £100m over the next three years, so something has got to give.
Mr Blantern said: "Are we going to close a library, are we going to give less care for the elderly, are we going to support our children less? Well of course when you start to see the real choices, people say well actually I could possibly live with that pothole."
Increasingly, it may be a case of asking not what your council can do for you but what can you do for your council.
On a deprived housing estate in Glasgow, local people have decided that if the council will not keep their community centre open they will do it themselves.
Local mother Sandra Gordon told us: "There is nothing in this community anymore except for the centre. It's scandalous that this is the only facility and it's closing."
Swimmers in Glasgow question the closing of a fitness facility
The centre in Cadder was due to shut on 1 April as part of a wider cost-cutting exercise that saw 10 more community centres and a swimming pool axed.
Culture & Sport Glasgow, which manages all the facilities on behalf of the Labour-run council, needed to make nearly £2m in savings and said they simply could not afford to run and maintain them all any more.
But the residents of Cadder fought the decision and won a six-month reprieve. At a packed public meeting in the community centre more than a dozen people, including Sandra, put their names forward to volunteer to try to keep it open.
"The people that have stepped up to plate - they know it's a big responsibility," said Sandra.
During the election campaign the Conservatives promoted the idea that we should all take a hand in running our local services to save money.
But as the people of Cadder are just beginning to find out, the Big Society that Mr Cameron was taking about is also likely to be a big ask.
Panorama: The Cuts - Can You Fight Back? BBC One, Monday, 17 May at 2030BST.
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