By David Spereall, local democracy reporter
Streetlights could be dimmed, nurseries closed and Bonfire Night displays axed permanently as part of gigantic cutbacks being planned by Leeds City Council.
The local authority has outlined its budget proposals for the next financial year, which if approved, will see council tax rise again and services slashed on an enormous scale.
Council house tenants could also see their rent hiked by seven per cent in April, under the plans, while parking charges are likely to be brought in at some parks and local attractions for the first time.
The plans would save around £43m of public money, with the city council under more financial pressure than ever before.
That’s due to a combination of spiralling inflation, ministerial cuts to local government funding and rising demand in adult social care, where most council spending goes.
Speaking at a media briefing about the proposals at Civic Hall on Tuesday, Labour council leader James Lewis said: “After 12 years of austerity forced on us as a council, we’re looking at a hugely difficult situation for council services.
“Whether it’s day-to-day services people rely on, like emptying the bins, sweeping the streets and fixing the roads, or whether it’s the things we’re doing to make Leeds a fun, enjoyable and successful city, it’s getting unsustainable to do all that.
“So we’re really calling on the government to properly review local government finance and the funding model that’s used for councils.”
Councillor Lewis insisted public safety would not be compromised by the dimming of streetlights, which the authority says will only be done in areas where people aren’t walking or driving.
Thousands are already regularly switched off across the city between midnight and 5.30am in a move the council says has not led to any increase in crime or anti-social behaviour.
Councillor Lewis said: “Streetlights are one of our biggest users of energy and as for anyone else who’s at home paying for electricity, the cost has shot up through the roof.
“We’ve invested a lot in LED lights, which can still remain on but at a lower intensity of light.
“We’d always make sure we’re not compromising either road safety or the safety or communities, but given the high cost of energy it’s something we’re going to have to look at.”
Five of the council’s 30 Little Owls nurseries for pre-school children have also been earmarked for potential closure, in a bid to save just over £3m.
That comes amid pressures on the childcare sector in general, including staff shortages, higher costs and working-from-home culture allowing parents to keep their kids at home more.
Little Owls’ Rothwell centre is set to shut, while the futures of ones in Bramley, Meanwood, Shepherds Lane and Swarcliffe will all be placed under review. Other council-run nurseries – including ones in Armley – could be merged too.
Councillor Lewis said the Little Owls service was currently running at a loss, despite the fact most parents pay it for their childcare, and that it had to be made “financially viable”.
As previously reported, leisure centres could also open for fewer hours in a bid to save cash.
Council tax could rise by nearly five per cent, which includes a hike in the adult social care precept local authorities can charge.
And the council’s deputy leader defended plans to hike rent for council house tenants by seven per cent.
The authority said the rise would be in line with other areas and that the money will go back into maintaining and repairing those properties, as well as building more desperately-needed social housing.
Councillor Debra Coupar said: “We recognise that obviously our residents and tenants are suffering from the cost-of-living crisis and it’s not a decision we’ve taken lightly.
“It’s not one we’d have taken if we’d had more funding from the government.
“But to be able to continue our capital programme and ensuring the sustainability of our properties and to maintain our stock to a standard that’s expected, we do need that rental income.”
The city’s bonfire night displays – including the one at Bramley Park – will also be formally axed, after being suspended in the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and budget cuts.
There have been no Christmas lights switch ons this year in Armley, Bramley and Kirkstall, although Calverley, Farsley and Pudsey have enjoyed events.
The initial proposals will go before the council’s executive board, which is made of the most senior councillors, next Wednesday.
They will then go out to public consultation, and the plans’ final draft will be voted on by all 99 of the city’s councillors in February.