Sunday, November 28, 2010

A time of cuts: what should councillors do?

The sad fact is that over the last thirty years the power of councils has been steadily diminished. Year on year councils have become more and more the local administrator of national government than the governmental arm of local communities. We've seen a fundamental centralisation of political power in this country at the expense of local democracy.

So when it comes to national spending local councils have a lot less lee way than they've had in the past. The national government has forbidden council tax rises to ensure that local councils are only able to meet their budgets through cuts in services. There's no clearer indicator that the Coalition's priority is to shrink the state and reduce services and jobs rather than address the deficit when it tries to prevent councils raising revenues as an alternative.

Even the ability of councils to set an 'illegal budget' has been curtailed and council officers are obliged under law to have the national government take over councils that are even considering setting such a budget. So even if it was an admirable policy (and I'm not sure about that) it's a fairly pointless rhetorical demand when no local council could even try it.

I have heard a couple of people advocating forcing the national government to implement the cuts in their council, but what sort of psycho actually wants the Coalition to come in and set an example to the nation with the services they and their neighbours use? I guess the sort that thinks proving a political point is more important than libraries and nurseries... there you go.

So what's the alternative? Bite the bullet and start butchering the first born? No, for a start that would be rude. However there is no quibbling with the fact that for councillors in this position it is very grim indeed.

As our starting point I think we need to both explain why the national economic policy is wrong headed both economically and morally. It's not enough to say that the cuts will hurt (and by hurt I mean immiserate, distress and kill) we have to make the case that the cuts wont work and are unnecessary.

However, having framed the debate in that way we're no closer to giving guidance to a local councillor who's wrestling with the decisions before them. The general election result was a disaster for Britain but it's a disaster we're in the middle of so we need to go further than outline an alternative national economic strategy, "Cllr Blogs" needs to know how to avoid closing down home help for the elderly.

Green councillors across the country have never felt prissy about voting against budgets before the crisis and I hope the pressure of the 'there is no alternative' Westminster consensus wont push them into thinking that they have no choice but to vote for savage cuts. But they'll need more than a stubborn attitude as ammunition - there need to be positive proposals on how to deal with the age of austerity.

I think Darren Johnson got the tone right in this release on why he'll voting against Lewisham Labour's cut package this Monday. Here's an edited version;

Cllr Johnson said, "I strongly oppose what the Conservative/Lib Dem Government are doing nationally. But I am also appalled with how Labour are going about this locally. Labour's plans amount to a massacre of local services."

He continued, "Rather than making cuts to frontline services I want to see Mayor Steve Bullock make savings by slashing senior executive pay, cutting the millions spent on expensive private sector consultants and cutting down on glossy PR and council spin."

The Mayor's cuts programme, which will be presented to councillors on Monday, includes closing the Early Years Centre in New Cross, cuts to nurseries, street cleansing, parks and schools improvement teams.

Rather than cutting vital services Greens want to see the Council make savings by:

  • cutting senior pay for top council executives
  • reducing the millions spent on expensive private sector consultants
  • cutting down on glossy PR and council spin
  • reducing council fuel bills by making our schools, libraries and other buildings more energy efficient
  • working more closely with other public sector bodies to cut admin costs

Darren said, "The Government argue that these cuts will help clear the deficit. But experts have warned these cuts will harm the economy, not help it. Cuts this big will simply increase unemployment, meaning that the government raises less in taxes and will have to spend more on benefits. Green MP, Caroline Lucas, has set out an alternative plan to tackle the deficit. Instead of hitting public services she has shown how we can tackle the deficit by increasing taxes for the very wealthiest, introducing a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions, clamping down on the billions lost through tax evasion and tax avoidance, and scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons programme."

It seems to me that this is a better position than a simple 'no cuts' position which doesn't discriminate between savings and attacks on services. I'd also say there is much to commend this letter from former Lewisham councillor Ian Page in the Evening Standard where he says that;
THE LABOUR councillor introducing last week's cuts package in Lewisham blamed an international crisis and the actions of the coalition government.

He didn't mention that the reductions were part of £60 million cuts agreed by a Labour council and mayor back in March under a Labour government. Aside from high-profile cuts such as library closures, there are many others that will be invisible to the general public but devastating for those concerned: such as the closure of Opening Doors, a service for the long-term unemployed providing them with access to facilities to move them towards employment; cuts to adult social care, and the cancellation of project work to raise aspirations in areas of intergenerational unemployment.

The most vulnerable, isolated people are in no position to organise and highlight their plight. Councillors could use council reserves and "prudential borrowing" to buy time and build a mass campaign in order to bolster their demand for more money from central government.

Through such methods Liverpool council successfully won £60 million back from the Thatcher government. When councillors refuse to do this, unions and the community should coordinate strike action and direct action to defend our services.
Leaving aside any Liverpudlian nostalgia, Mr Page is quite right to point out that even before the coalition government was formed Labour were planning massive cuts in services this year. The further into this government we go the easier it will be for Labour to distance themselves from these cuts but the fact is that, in Lewisham, these cuts were going to happen no matter who took control of the national government as long as Mayor Bullock remained in place.

More than that prudential borrowing, as a method to hold back the savagery of the cuts, is well worth exploring, but it seems to be entirely off the agenda. I think that lacks vision and I hope others can make this work even if it only plugs part of the short fall.

However the key point that Ian Page makes, which I think is worth repeating time and again, is that if the council and national government wont serve the interests of communities then those communities need to make their voices heard loud and clear. In the end it will be that democratic movement that has the best hope to defeat the cuts agenda and while councillors need to take their positions seriously in the chamber they should never become so focused on council rules that they forget who they're representing and why.


Alasdair Thompson said...

Some interesting points, particularly on prudential borrowing, which I don't really know much about.

I'm going to take issue with your outright rejection of setting illegal budgets a little, though.

If there are other options that can ameliorate all or most of the cuts then those should obviously be advocated and implemented where there is support. I'm not at all sure though that cutting senior pay and efficiency can cover all of the shortfalls and I don't see why councillors who oppose cuts should be forced to implement them and accept some of the responsibility and blame. As you say Greens have refused to vote for bad budgets in the past and should continue to do so.

If councils refuse to help implement cuts and force central government to take over that does send a very strong message. If you can coordinate that with workers in the affected councils taking strike action or with occupations or good work strikes we could make it very difficult for the coalition to implement their policies. I accept that would require a great deal of cooperation and to happen on a large enough scale, but we need to think creatively and optimistically about our ability to resist.

Jim Jepps said...

I'm glad someone's going to make the case for illegal budgets.

I think there is a difference between voting against a budget that does not meet our standards and setting an illegal budget.

Where we only have one or two councillors (or none) we generally don't have the capacity to provide an entire fully costed alternative budget anyway, but if we have suggestions that can save jobs and services through efficiency savings or cutting PR then that's the right thing to do.

I'm very relaxed about cutting the pay of the top execs. who are massively overpaid at the moment - or sharing execs with local PCTs or neighbouring councils. You can save council staff and get little or no reduction in service by doing so.

As it happens I don't think any siggested saving has to balance the entire budget, but if it helps prevent even some redundancies then it's worth pursuing.

What I don't think is worth pursuing is forcing the national government to come and do that work for the locally elected government because they will be brutal. There is no current strike wave to tap into and wishing it into existence is not the way to save jobs and services.

We must be part of the movements and organisations that fight the current economic policies but councils that hope someone else we ride in and save the day for them are playing fast and loose with the future of their borough's citizens.

Alasdair Thompson said...

As I say if we can make significant saving through efficiency then we should do that. I don't know about England and Wales and NI but I do know that up here councils have already seen real cuts over the last few years and I don't know how much can realistically be found through savings. I'm happy to cut exec pay too, but how much does that really raise? If there's not going to be a major difference between cuts we (as progressives and lefties generally, not just Greens) impose and those central government would, then what's the risk? Maybe the difference would be significant, though, I don't know the details well enough to be honest. (Has anyone quantified any of this?)

It's not about wishing a movement into existance, however. It's about creating one. Councils refusing to collaborate would be a huge statement, and if you talked to other stakeholders before you did it maybe you could find support. I actually think that simply trying to make awful cuts merely very bad risks reducing your power to oppose the broader issues and leaves you reliant on someone else forming that extra-parliamentary movement that must be essential if we want to have any real effect.

I don't mean to say that incremental progress isn't valuable, or possible, and there will undoubtedly be situations where we should take it, but we need to be aware of the limitations of working within the framework the right gives us. To that end, I think it's worth at least considering the effects of action like illegal budgets. Maybe they would be counterproductive and merely make cuts worse for no political gain, but I do wonder if the only way we can make the coalition roll back their plans more generally is to make the country essentially ungovernable.

Jim Jepps said...

I'm sure we do agree on some of this - but I'm not arguing that cutting exec pay will solve the crisis, only that it directly translates into saving some jobs that would otherwise be lost.

While I agree that "we need to be aware of the limitations of working within the framework the right gives us." although I'd have said government rather than right because it's a concrete fact not just ideology.

The difficulty I'm specifically trying to grapple with here is how councillors play the hand that is dealt them. Now, as a political party, we shouldn't be bogged down in what our councillors have to do and allow it to obscure our wider political analysis and campaigning work - BUT - there are specific decisions those councillors are going to have to deal with and we need to help provide them with positive proposals.

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Joe Otten said...

Lib Dem Sheffield has cut its numbers of top managers, over the objections of Labour. Made some savings there, but not enough.

At the end of this process, in 2015, we are going to end up with the same share of national income spent by the public sector as there was in 2006. Was it savage then? I struggle to see the justification for your hyperbole.

And on the alternative of increasing Council Tax, I would just point out that Council Tax is one of the most regressive taxes we have. Far worse than VAT. The left should have been up in arms at Labour's relentless driving up of council tax over the last decade. But I guess the left employs a double standard when it comes to what Labour does.

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rashid1891 said...

The most vulnerable, isolated people are in no position to organise and highlight their plight. Councillors could use council reserves and "prudential borrowing" to buy time and build a mass campaign in order to bolster their demand for more money from central government.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this, it was quite helpful and told a lot

Jim Jepps said...

Rashid, while I agree that some service users are unlikely to organise campaigns many can and are. Sadly it means there's an unevenness between campaigns to save libraries than homelessness shelters, but where campaigns exist we should support them.

However, I think we basically agree on the role on cllrs who should be looking for ways to protect services despite limited powers and even more limited financial circumstances.

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