Unions representing local authority workers have voiced their fury after councils announced they would impose a pay freeze on 1.5m employees for the financial year from April.

Unison, the GMB and Unite unions urged councils to reconsider the decision, which they said had been made without negotiations.

The Local Government Association said there had been substantial discussions with work representatives and that the freeze was a necessary response to the financial crisis.

All councils were under pressure to cut costs because of the public sector deficit and the move would prevent further job losses and “protect vital frontline services”, the group said.

The row comes against the backdrop of public sector pay outstripping rises in the private sector by a wide margin, according to figures published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics. In the public sector, total weekly pay rose by 3.8 per cent in the three months to November compared with a year ago, while in the private sector it fell by 0.1 per cent.

John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said the ONS figures painted a “stark picture of the pay squeeze on private sector workers during the recession and the degree to which pay has continued to rise relatively rapidly in the public sector”.

The local government unions had been seeking an increase of 2.5 per cent or £500, whichever was greater. Heather Wakefield, head of local government for Unison, said most council workers were on low pay and deserved a rise in line with recent inflation.

Two in three local authority staff earned less than £18,000 a year, she said: “The employer’s decision to cut our members’ pay without negotiation is a slap in the face for hard-working council employees who have kept local communities together through the crisis.” The unions estimate that the pay offer covers 1.6m workers, while the LGA says the figure is 1.4m.

Jan Parkinson, managing director of Local Government Employers, said councils had already had to cut thousands of jobs because of the “cold winds of recession”.

“Councils are facing a perfect storm of falling revenues and increasing demand for services,” he said.

David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The gap between public and private sector wages has widened, reinforcing the need for a freeze in the total public sector pay bill as a key measure in battling the UK’s unsustainable budget deficit.”

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