Social care is one of the least likely council services to suffer cuts according to local authority chiefs, research by the New Local Government Network has revealed.
The study, entitled Scanning the Financial Horizons, found that council chief executives and finance officers expected social care, for children and adults, to be the second least likely area to suffer big cuts. Only education was expected to enjoy more protection.
A separate public opinion survey for NLGN found social care was the least popular area for cuts, with more than 70% opposing cuts, including 48% of respondents who were strongly against them.
Chief executives and finance officers expected to cut budgets by between 20% and 25% over the next four years.
Last month the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicted social care budget cuts could be as high as 33% based on existing government announcements.
The author of the NLGN paper, Nick Hope, said: “With some areas of government spending protected, our research indicates that the burden of cuts placed on councils will be substantial, meaning that local authorities are having to explore tough choices about how finances are allocated and how to cut services and increase charges.
“Our research shows significant public opposition to reduced services, meaning that councils may be stuck in an impossible position of having to match high public expectations without the financial means to do so.”
The NLGN recommended that local government should be given greater autonomy over their budgets to help them manage the downturn. This should include removing the requirement for them to balance their budgets each year. Giving them a three-year window to balance their budgets would enable them to invest in redesigning services to deliver long-term savings.
Meanwhile, a local government finance expert has warned that social care and other services are at risk of suffering unnecessarily large cuts unless the government brings forward its announcement on its 2011-15 spending plans, due on 20 October.
Tony Travers, director of the Greater London group at the London School of Economics, told Community Care that council finance officers were “naturally cautious” and were likely to be already planning large cuts to budgets in 2011-12 in anticipation of a poor settlement.
Travers said 20 October was too late for councils to adapt, if the settlement proved more generous than expectations, and urged the government to bring forward the announcement of its comprehensive spending review to give councils certainty.