THE region’s town hall leaders are “stupid” if they cannot cope with the most savage cuts to their budgets in generations, a Cabinet minister claimed yesterday.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles turned his fire on council bosses who have warned of painful cuts to services, insisting they would be guilty of negligence if that happened.

Giving evidence to a committee of MPs, Mr Pickles again insisted the draconian cuts – announced last week – could be achieved by taking out a wasteful layer of middle management.

And he warned that council leaders – not himself – would be the target of the public’s anger if they axe libraries, leisure centres and care services, rather than get rid of managers.

From next month, all councils will be expected, although not legally required, to publish all items of spending above £500 on their websites – which ministers are convinced will reveal scandalous waste to local voters.

Mr Pickles said: “It will be a very brave decision, in the ‘Yes Minister’ sense, to cut front-line services if you have not tackled the layer of middle management that exists in local authorities.” On the scale of cuts, the Communities Secretary insisted: “You would have to be beyond the point of negligence – to the point of stupidity – as a local government leader or official, if you were not expecting cuts of this magnitude.”

Almost all the region’s councils have warned of cuts to services, faced with grant reductions of up to 17 per cent next year – with further pain to come in succeeding years.

Durham County Council must find more than £100m of savings, warning of 1,600 job losses and admitting that libraries, museums, theatres, welfare rights, youth centres and leisure are all at risk.

Mr Pickles has been accused of agreeing to deeper departmental cuts than other ministers to curry favour with David Cameron and because of an ideological crusade to hack back public spending.

But the Communities Secretary has insisted front-line services can be protected if town halls share posts – from planners, lawyers and school support to IT and payroll staff – with neighbouring local councils.

Yesterday, Mr Pickles denied the poorest areas were being hit the hardest – despite his own figures showing the reduction in spending power is 14 times greater in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough than in Buckinghamshire and Sussex.

Instead, he produced a “ready reckoner on local government finance” that showed grant per head is almost twice as high in the North-East (almost £700) as in the South-East (£370).

Accused of targeting struggling areas for the steepest cuts, Mr Pickles told the communities select committee: “I don’t accept that’s the case.”