THE tough financial decisions taken by the council have been “pragmatic” and “necessary” to protect public services, say senior politicians following the publication of data which shows the full extent of the budgetary challenges faced by local authorities.

The National Audit Office has published a report into the financial health of councils right across the country.

It showed that despite greater freedoms to increase council tax bills, local authorities are struggling to juggle higher demands and cost pressures against significant central government funding cuts of almost 50 per cent since 2010/11.

The report found that “continued increases in demand for social care and tightening resources are pushing local government towards a narrow remit centred on social care”.

And Swindon Borough Council is no exception. In February’s budget, council tax was increased by five per cent, which, from April, will mean that residents will be paying an extra £62.44 for the average Band D property.

Increased pressures in social care provision and a lack of funds from central government are largely to blame for the tax hike. And the council still needs to save £30m over the next 30 months.

But Coun Russell Holland, the cabinet member for finance and commercialisation, assured taxpayers that, despite the challenges, the council was well-placed to ensure long-term sustainability.

“The Conservative administration has practised sound financial management since taking overall control in June 2004 and we have consistently delivered the annual budget with a small surplus,” he said.

“We have taken the pragmatic and necessary decisions to protect public services, whether that was to put services out to the private sector, to devolve, them or to take them back-in house, which has enabled us to do that.”

Nationally, from 2010-11 to 2016-17 the estimated number of people aged 65 and over in need of care increased by 14.3 per cent, and the number of children being looked after grew by 10.9 per cent.

Social care now accounts for 54.4 per cent of local authorities’ total service spend, up from 45.3 per cent in 2010-11. In Swindon, gross spending on adult social care, which includes elderly care and looking after vulnerable adults, hit £68.3m in 2016/17 – up more than £4m on 2015/16. For the coming financial year, £82m has been set aside for adult services.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The government risks sleep walking into a centralised local authority financial system where the scope for local discretion is being slowly eroded.”