Exclusive: Crisis-hit English councils at 'cliff edge' and most tipped to hike council tax by 5.99% maximum this year

Crisis-hit councils across England are at a "cliff edge" with "nowhere to go", ITV News has learned, with the vast majority expected to raise council tax by the maximum 5.99% this year.

The anticipated rise - effectively double the rate of inflation - comes as the public is warned to expect local services to worsen with continuing cuts to "non-essentials" like libraries and parks amid an increasing threat of councils going broke.

An annual survey of council leaders showed a clear intention to raid the public directly for funds, days after Conservative-run Northamptonshire Council declared itself close to bankruptcy and unable to meet its obligations.

How have councils defended such an unpopular move?

The Labour leader of Warrington Borough Council, Terry O’Neill, told ITV News he and others were braced for a backlash but had no choice but to raise taxes as he accused the government of putting councils in the firing line.

"We’ve come to a cliff face. Now we’ve come to a cliff edge. There’s nowhere to go because, we’ve lost somewhere like £120 odd million since 2010," he said.

When asked if councils expected residents to understand why taxes were going up, he said: "Probably not, no, they will obviously have concerns, they will blame the council, they will blame us, and I think that’s what the government wants but we’ve nowhere to go."

This year's forecast rise continues a dramatic shift in council tax demands since 2012 during a period of eight years' worth of government cuts.

How council tax freezes have been frozen out in seven years

  • 2018: 95% of councils forecast to increase - 4% forecast to freeze council tax.

  • 2017: 94% increased 6% froze.

  • 2016: 86% increased 14% froze.

  • 2015: 50% increased 50% froze.

  • 2014: 35% increased 65% froze.

  • 2013: 35% increased 65% froze.

  • 2012: 5% increased 95% froze.

What evidence is there councils are seeking the maximum rise again?

The State of Local Government Finance Survey found a record 95% of respondents were seeking to raise council tax this year, while 76% confirmed they planned to hike it by more than 2%.

However, the Local Government Information Unit, which carried out the survey, rates it "very likely" three quarters will adopt the maximum 5.99% based on the actions of councils last year and this year's responses.

The rise amounts to £95 more a year for average Band D homes, which are properties valued at £68,000 to £88,000.

Councils can seek 6% tax rises if half of the extra funding is directed at social care. Credit: ITV News

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid gave local authorities the green light in December to pursue the rise in tax, capped at 6%, to address shortfalls in funding for social care.

The mechanism avoids the need to call a referendum to receive public consent.

Why are there fears the services will worsen then?

The Local Government Information Unit's Jonathan Carr-West said cuts will 'inevitably' lead to more failures. Credit: ITV News

The Local Government Information Unit's chief executive, Jonathan Carr-West, told ITV News its survey findings were "pretty disturbing" and showed councils are "on the brink financially", with Northamptonshire's demise "the tip of the iceberg".

Mr Carr-West said: "(Councils are) having to increase charging on everything they can, everything from planning applications, to cremations, to cutting grass.

"And they're having to make cuts to non-essential services; libraries, parks, even then 70% of councils are only managing because they're raiding their reserves. That's not sustainable."

And he predicted the cuts "will inevitably lead to more failures within the system, it will lead to people not getting the care they need and deserve. So it is a real pressing crisis and it's happening now."

What does the government say about the expected tax rise?

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told ITV News it has given local authorities "greater flexibility" and respects the councils' "judgement call" to increase council tax.

What is the most pressing demand for councils?

Children's services are now ahead of adult social care as the most pressing demand for English councils, for the first time since the Local Government Information Unit began its records three years ago.

However the State of Local Government Finance Survey found adult social care remains the councils' greatest long-term pressure.

Three quarters of responding councils (73%) believed they had sustained frontline services despite the financial challenges over the last year.

However, 40% of respondents believe the cuts to frontline services this year will be noticed by the public.

Council leaders and senior decision makers at 353 councils across England were sent survey requests last month.

It led to 132 responses from 113 individual councils and found only one respondent said their council would be reducing council tax this year.