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Britain Reels as Spending Cuts Begin

Last month, the British government abolished the U.K. Film Council, the Health Protection Agency and dozens of other groups that regulate, advise and distribute money in the arts, health care, industry and other areas.

Sharon Lorimer

It seemed shockingly abrupt, a mass execution without appeal. But it was just a tiny taste of what was to come.

Like a shipwrecked sailor on a starvation diet, the new British coalition government is preparing to shrink down to its bare bones as it cuts expenditures by $130 billion over the next five years and drastically scales back its responsibilities. The result, said the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a research group, will be “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since World War II.

Until recently, the cuts were just election talking points, early warnings of a new age of austerity. But now the pain has begun. And as the government begins its abrupt retrenchment, the implications, complications and confusions in the process are beginning to emerge.

“It feels like they’re just sticking a finger in the air and guessing,” John Mutton, leader of the City Council in Coventry, said of the government’s methods for deciding which programs to cancel and which to cut.

In June, the government announced its first round of cuts, removing about $10 billion from the current year’s budget.

While that is a drop in the bucket compared to the final goal, the reduction measures have already had severe consequences. Public sector workers across the country, except for the lowest paid, will have their salaries frozen for the next two years. Oxfordshire, facing a nearly $1 million trim in its road safety budget, has been forced to shut down all of its 161 traffic speed cameras.

Nottinghamshire plans to close three recycling facilities and some of its day care centers. The city of Coventry, which already cut spending in January, is trying to find $5.6 million more to cut from its current child services budget.

Worse Cuts Coming in October

But far worse cuts await in October, when the government issues its long-term budget plans. Mr. Mutton, the Coventry official, predicted that the next round of cuts would cost the city at least 10,000 jobs. Analysts have estimated that about 600,000 public-sector jobs could be lost nationwide.

Mr. Mutton said that the most recent news — which included the cancellation of a multimillion-pound program to build new schools and refurbish crumbling old ones in Coventry — had come so abruptly that carefully wrought plans and partnerships had to be torn up overnight.

“It’s impossible to plan,” he said. “We believe in trying to plan our budget for three years, particularly in order to give our voluntary and private-sector partners some stability. But we can’t do that at the moment. We haven’t a clue.”

They are not the only ones. The urgency of the task has sent cabinet ministers scrambling to find cuts so quickly that speed may be overtaking sober reflection, critics say.

For instance, the U.K. Film Council is not, in fact, sure whether it is meant to exist or not. Two weeks ago, a Culture Department official told its chief executive, Tim Bevan, that it was being abolished. The next week, the department said in a news release — and the culture secretary said in Parliament — that the abolition was one of a number of “proposed” changes.

A spokesman for the council said that no one from the Culture Department had explained what was going on. But a spokeswoman for the department declared that it was a done deal: the group would cease to exist.

Referring to the word “proposed,” the spokeswoman said: “I can’t account for whether someone thinks the word is ambiguous in our press notice.”

The council, which is financed by the government but operates independently, distributes lottery money to filmmakers and promotes Britain’s $10.8 billion film industry. While it is by no means universally loved, people in the industry say that it serves an important function by removing politics from decisions about which film projects to support.

The government said that the Film Council’s work would be absorbed by another agency. But it has not said how.

Also last month, the government canceled a 20-year, $87 billion program to refurbish high schools and build new ones across the country. While the government said it would immediately stop work on about 700 planned new buildings and services, it said work could go ahead on about 700 others. But it repeatedly failed to correctly identify which schools were on which list, leading to widespread confusion.

George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister David Cameron have said that almost every function of government will be up for grabs, and that cabinet members will have to make a case for every expenditure. That has prompted a huge round of maneuvering and lobbying from groups that will be affected — just about every group in the country.

The director of the Tate Gallery, Sir Nicholas Serota, warned that “what you will see across the country is organizations closing, theaters going dark, galleries being closed.” The BBC is trying to make the case for keeping the $226 annual license fee that television viewers pay the government each year. The police say that planned cuts in the antiterrorism budget would make it harder to fight Al Qaeda.

Public-sector unions are planning a series of strikes. Charities — which Mr. Cameron has said should take over some of the responsibilities now held by the state — say that they are at risk of collapse because they are so dependent on government money.

And the chief executive of the Supreme Court, the country’s highest, said she did not know whether the court would be able to function at all if its budget were cut by 40 percent.

In Coventry, Mr. Mutton said that the City Council was bracing for an uncertain future.

“The worst bit is yet to come,” he said. “We’re not just talking about cuts in services, but real people losing their jobs, not being able to pay their mortgages, families becoming homeless. I don’t want to be scare-mongering, but these are the kind of consequences we face.”

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