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Councillors warn of ‘threat to local democracy’ in England after budget cuts forced on Nottingham

Councillors elected to run a financially stricken city have warned that local democracy is “under threat” as they no longer have full control of budget decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people

David Mellen, the Labour leader of Nottingham city council, said elected members did not have the final say over “devastating” funding gap that led to them approving more than 500 redundancies, council tax rises and millions of pounds of cuts last week.

The levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, last month sent commissioners into the struggling east Midlands authority, which declared itself effectively bankrupt in November.

“[Last year,] we banished the Tory party because no Conservative councillors were elected and yet somehow, by the backdoor, people appointed by the Conservative government have considerable levels of power in our city,” said Mellen. “Our mandate has been impinged upon. These commissioners, and by extension our officers, have more power currently.”

The commissioners arrived after a government-appointed improvement board spent seven months overseeing the council’s efforts to balance its books. The last act of the board was to give the authority’s unelected senior officers the power to effectively write the budget.

“We tried to amend the budget but we weren’t given permission,” said Mellen. “Usually, officers and council members work together. We come up with an agreed set of [budget] proposals to be brought forward to consultation. This year that didn’t happen. [The budget] included things we could live with and things we absolutely opposed.”

The budget included cutting funding for all voluntary organisations and community centres in the city, stopping lunch clubs for the elderly, closing the last two remaining youth centres, potentially closing libraries, and charging for toilets used by homeless people in the city centre.

Mellen, a former headteacher, added: “We have balanced our budget but it has pretty dreadful consequences for communities in Nottingham.”

The city’s troubles stem in part from the collapse of the council’s not-for-profit energy provider in 2020. But councillors point to deep austerity-era cuts and increasing demands on their statutory services, such as social care and support for homeless people. Core government funding has fallen from £127m in 2013 to £32m in 2024.

One in five councils in England say they are most likely to follow Nottingham and issue a section 114 notice, which means they cannot balance their budget, this year or next.

Birmingham, which has also seen some functions taken over by government commissioners, last week passed what has been described as the largest-ever cuts in local government history.

All but one Labour councillor in Nottingham voted for the cuts last week. Mellen said the alternative would have been even worse: “We were strongly advised that the duty to set a legal budget was paramount – that if we didn’t, staff wouldn’t get paid, services wouldn’t get delivered.”

Labour party officials also appear to have exerted influence over councillors behind the scenes. Mellen said the party’s regional office and Keir Starmer’s office indicated that councillors would be thrown out of the party if they opposed the budget, as Labour is trying to project an image of economic responsibility.

“We were advised that [voting against the budget] wouldn’t be beneficial for continuing membership of the Labour party,” Mellen said.

A seated Shuguftah Quddoos wearing ceremonial clothing
Councillor Shuguftah Quddoos, who is the sheriff of Nottingham, was suspended by Labour after refusing to vote for the city’s budget cuts. Photograph: Tracey Whitefoot/Nottingham City Council

The one Labour councillor to rebel, Shuguftah Quddoos, has been suspended by the party. Quddoos, who holds the ceremonial post of sheriff of Nottingham, said all measures to minimise cuts to services put forward by the city’s elected councillors were not included in the budget.

“Local democracy has been completely undermined. I don’t want to be a cog in the wheel,” said Quddoos. “It felt like a complete and utter sham.”

Quddoos said she urged her Labour colleagues to follow the example of the Poplar rates rebellion in 1921, when councillors in the East End of London were imprisoned for defying what they saw as an unfair funding system. Their actions led to fairer funding for poorer areas.

“I’ll go to prison for six weeks. I love my city that much,” she said. “At the end of the day, I need to look my residents in the eye.”

Ministers last month told 19 councils, including six of the eight English councils that have effectively declared bankruptcy, that they could sell off assets, such as land and buildings, to pay for services.

But Mellen said cities such as Nottingham, which was permitted to use £41m from asset sales to fund services this financial year, needed genuine financial assistance from the government.

“We need real money,” he said. “It’s certainly not a bailout and it doesn’t make economic sense. I’ve only got economics A-level but you can’t sustain this way of funding public services. It is like funding the country’s defence by selling Whitehall. It doesn’t make sense.”

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it had “appointed independent commissioners to guide members and officers to deliver the best possible outcome for Nottingham residents”.