Owen Jones: “The choice facing our councillors is clear: face having to take responsibility for kicking people who are poor, disabled, old or young – or join together and fight back”

 

 

Councils across Britain will soon by unable to deliver statutory services. Managing the misery isn’t good enough. Local councillors must take action

 

Anti-Cuts Demo Shire Hall Gloucester

‘Come on you local councillors. Resist these cuts!’

 By OWEN JONES Sunday 23 September 2012

Imagine coming into politics to shut down youth clubs, take money from poor people and make the lives of elderly people harder and lonelier. It’s unlikely that any councillors stuck a rosette on their lapel with these ambitions, but it is not an unfair description of their job these days. With the Communities and Local Government’s council budget being slashed by 28 per cent by 2014, the state is not just being rolled back by this radical Tory government at the national level; it’s being stripped away locally, too.

Last week, I spoke to several Labour councillors in Southampton. Although they felt they had managed the first round of cuts without inflicting excessive hardship – indeed, they have offered to reverse pay cuts imposed by the previous Tory administration – over the next few years, jobs, services and people will be hit. “ Intolerable” was a term one councillor used to describe the situation. But they had no intention of spending the next few years resigned to acting as the local Labour custodians of Tory policy, merely attempting to minimise the damage inflicted on their communities by cuts they did not agree with it. Instead, they wanted to fight back.

What was suggested was a strategy that could pose a new threat to the Government’s whole austerity agenda. Councillors right across Britain would convene a conference to decide on a national strategy for taking on the unfolding disastrous cuts to local government. Rather than spending the next few years managing the misery locally, councillors across the country could co-ordinate a response that would challenge these cuts. It would not simply be out of principle; after all, it is local councillors who face being blamed for policies imposed by a government they oppose.

In part, such a strategy would need to drive home the impact of these cuts. Many people struggle to understand what services are actually provided locally; they only notice them when they depend on them and they abruptly disappear.Often, many will suggest libraries as the most likely victim, and indeed up to one in five face being shut down because of cuts. In Brent, for example, six libraries – or half the total number in the borough – face the chop.

But the impact is far, far greater than local libraries. The anti-cuts website False Economy have been collating examples, and the picture is frightening. Bristol City Council is closing eight of its care homes, sacking 130 workers and leaving almost 200 vulnerable elderly people having to find somewhere else to live. In York, the cost of attending day care for disabled people has been hiked by a stunning 263 per cent. In Northamptonshire and Bolton, street lamps are being dimmed or switched off, leaving women particularly at risk. In austerity Britain, the lights are literally going out. 

“We don’t hear much of the Big Society these days, but local authority cuts to charities make Cameron’s flagship project even more farcical.”

Lunch clubs can alleviate the loneliness many elderly people face, but they are being slashed, too. In communities like Anglesey, teaching assistants face the sack, and funding for local authority social care across Britain dropped by more than 6 per cent in a year. Back in July, a legal challenge to North Somerset Council’s decision to decimate youth services with a 71 per cent cut was dismissed. Such cuts are happening across the country. Expect thousands more bored teenagers to flood on to our streets.

We don’t hear much of the Big Society these days, but local authority cuts to charities make Cameron’s flagship project even more farcical. Women’s refuges faced a drop in funding of nearly a third last year, leading the charity Women’s Aid to reveal that it had turned away 230 women a day. In a country in which two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner a week, lives are at risk. In Liverpool, local authority funding for the voluntary sector has been reduced by £18m, or nearly half. According to New Philanthropy Capital, six in ten charities face being hit by local council cuts; and, overall, charities face losing up to £5.5bn because of local and national cuts, says the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations.

By the next election, councils across Britain will have been stripped to the bone. Amy O’Callaghan, a Labour councillor in Luton elected in 2010, says they originally anticipated local cuts of £22m but – thanks to changes in benefits and business-rate restrictions – it has soared to £48m in the past three months. That will mean the council will not even have enough money to pay for statutory services. “So as the situation stands, we won’t even carry out what we’re legally accountable to do come 2015,” O’Callaghan says.

A newly published report for the Resolution Foundation reveals a typical low-income family faces a shocking 15 per cent drop in real income by the end of the decade. Just one reason – among many – is the Government’s attack on council tax benefit. Up to six million people have either all their council tax paid, or are offered a partial rebate; but funding has been cut by 10 per cent, with councils left to decide who suffers. With the elderly protected, and councils unwilling to withdraw it from already hammered disabled people, low-paid workers and working-age unemployed people face a drop in council tax benefits of up to 44 per cent.

Those councillors in Southampton are right – this situation is intolerable. But fighting back is not straightforward. Some anti-cuts activists argue that Labour and Green councillors should simply refuse to implement cuts, and set budgets based on people’s actual needs. But councillors respond that they would not be martyred, as in the past, through imprisonment or being made personally liable for funds. Instead, the Department for Communities and Local Government – led by Eric Pickles – would simply intervene and impose cuts with different priorities. Labour-run Islington Council, for example, might then lose policies it is rightly proud of, such as free school meals and the London Living Wage.

But that does not mean inaction. Labour councillors – with other potential allies, such as the Greens – must meet and decide a national strategy. After all, they derive their mandates from opposing Tory policies. They are uniquely rooted in their communities. Whether it be planning co-ordinated days of action in their boroughs – or even more radical actions – they are specially placed to mount a challenge to national cuts. With the failure of austerity sucking growth out of the economy as borrowing surges, it would be impossible to ignore them. The choice facing our councillors is clear: face having to take responsibility for kicking people who are poor, disabled, old or young – or join together and fight back. 

The Independent on Sunday

See also:

STOP PRESS! Southampton Labour Councillors refused to vote for cuts!

Comments
  • Steve Grant September 23, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    This has been going on for some time,councils in many areas were planning the cutting of services long before the credit crunch and dishing it out to the private sector.Its only now those councils who complain of cuts start to shout about loss of services,the same services they were happy to dispose of to claim they were saving money for the community.where is the honesty?Lets have the truth just for once instead of the same old party political agendas.

  • jed goodright September 24, 2012 at 3:09 am

    councils have to cut services in order to pay their chief executives amounts exceeding £200000 per year for cutting services – simples. you guys want to look at hereford county council – ask where the money’s gone? ask why the smallest populated county has paid its ceo the most throughout the country – to do what exactly? corruption rules in our so called democratic society – its there for all to see

  • Michael Cleverley September 24, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Why have Labour Councillors waited so long before starting to link up in a campaign. In Waltham Forest Trades Unions and Socialists have been opposing the cuts but Labour Councillors have mocked protesters outside the Town Hall. They have conducted a vile campaign, with the aid of Unison nationally, against Trades Union reps who have dared to speak out and have tried to restrict the right to campaign in public open spaces. In the light of all this, I applaud those few Councillors who have stood up all along, for the rest it may be too little too late. We need more than a campaign by Labour Councillors, we need a mass campaign, with Trades Unions, Community Organisations and Socialists. We already see Labour Councillors being disciplined for opposing cuts; at some point we will need new a new political party to replace the corrupted and discredited Labour Party

  • Bob Cannell September 24, 2012 at 9:44 am

    I’m a labor councillor veteran of the Thatcher major years.I know councils have huge management costs.Unfortunately these have to go.we can’t pay people to manage we have to pay people to provide. A council officer recently admitted to me the private sector bid for a service at 12 pounds an hour. The staff were minimum wage level.so 5 pounds an hour profit.disgraceful? The council unit cost was 26 pounds an hour! 19 pounds worth of management per hour of service provision. I’m afraid it means wholesale training and redeployment if we are to keep the private sector out. Of course the staff could run the service themselves and pay themselves better wages.would union s allow that?

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