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."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;
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."
THE LABOUR councillor introducing last week's cuts package in Lewisham blamed an international crisis and the actions of the coalition government.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.
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.
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.