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People battle hard to save council services across the country


4:00 pm - February 20th 2011

by Kate Belgrave    


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At the start of last week, I was surprised by what I felt was a relatively quiet national political and press response to the battles that were raging at council meetings as people protested about council cuts.

The BBC spoke to me about using some of my stuff for segments on cuts last week, and there have been stories here and there on protests.

Nonetheless, I think the depth of the conflicts at council meetings deserves a lot more reporting – saturation, even. I’d also like to see public outrage at local service cuts championed publicly by Eds Miliband and Balls. Daily. Hourly, even.

The thing is – time is running short. As noted here, councils around the country have begun to agree budgets for the coming financial year. Most will complete soon – generally, budgets will be set by March.

These are budgets for the first year of much-reduced grants settlements – which means they incorporate the first wave of council service and job cuts. Council meetings to agree these budgets have been heated, to say the least.

Police have thrown people out of public galleries – I spoke to a parent of a severely disabled man in Lancashire who said that families were chucked out of the public gallery at the town hall for yelling at the council – “the first time we’ve had police at the town hall for years.” (Lancashire locals are incensed at council plans to tighten care eligibility criteria and cut respite care for children).

It can’t be said too loudly or too often – councils are cutting services used by people who really need them. A fiery protest at Barnet council last Monday included locals who want to save the onsite warden service in sheltered housing. Service cuts in Cambridgeshire include a special education unit for children on the autism spectrum who can’t cope in mainstream schools. Parents in Lancashire, as I say, are desperately upset about council plans to downgrade care options. Disabled service users in Shropshire are fighting to keep their daycentre open. The list goes on and on.

Once these budgets are agreed and voted through by councils, it will no longer be a matter of fighting cuts. It’ll be a matter of fighting to have funding and services returned, which will be considerably more difficult. People know that and they’re putting up an almighty fight. They need political and press support, though, and plenty more of it.

It would have been great if the Guardian had taken up other local government cuts in the way that it did libraries – libraries certainly deserve coverage, but there is just so much more. Waiting for Year Two of cuts seems pointless to me – not least because some councils are agreeing budgets for the next three years.

Last week’s confrontations included:

Barnet council: members of the council’s cabinet committee walked out of public meeting when residents shouted councillors down during a cuts debate. The council received an unprecedented number of questions from residents who wanted to grill the council on cuts proposals, but the cabinet only allowed 30 minutes for questions.

A Hendon Times report from the meeting.

Norfolk county council:

Police and security were called and debate suspended as protestors disrupted a county council meeting from the public gallery. Two people were arrested and 12 were thrown out.

Cambridgeshire county council:

One person was arrested and other protestors thrown out of a council meeting to agree spending cuts for a funding gap of £50m.

Lancashire county council:

On Thursday, Lancashire county council agreed cuts to the tune of £179m (there’s a full list of cuts here – it’s pretty worrying and really does target people with disabilities).

News report from Lancashire with local campaigner Angela Murphy.

Islington council:

Police threw people out of the public gallery as residents protested against cuts.

A good report from PCS Euston on the protests, with photos of protestors being removed by the police.

This report from faultythinking includes video of police scuffles with protestors in the public gallery.

Cambridge:

Police removed protestors from a council meeting and there were reports that journalists were being banned.

Report here.

Southampton:

Staff and protestors stormed a meeting as councillors voted through council-wide salary cuts.

BBC report from Southampton.

North Devon:

Heated exchanges between campaigners and council leader John Hart at County Hall as the public challenged the council’s cuts proposals with dozens of questions.

North Devon anti cuts has a full report. (h-t @jwelowe).

Dorset county council:

Protestors marched through Dorchester as the council agreed about £31m of savings that are likely to lead to 500 redundancies.

This was an odd one, because Dorset was one of the councils that was thought to have done well out of Eric Pickles’ new settlements, and to even have made a small gain. By January, though, councillors were claiming that the council faced an estimated a funding gap of about £57m for three years.

Report from the march

There’s a longer report on my site, which I’ll add to as council meetings continue this week.

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About the author
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: Hangbitching.com and @hangbitch
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Fight the cuts ,Local Government

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Reader comments


Kate – I’m sure when we talked about this last… about a week ago, you said that most of the battle will be for next year budgets, while this year was almost a goner given how big the Tory cuts are.

or was that Paul?

You seem to be endorsing a position that states ‘we should oppose all local council cuts’ – when I know your position is a bit more nuanced than that.

The view of someone at Islington is slightly different to the one in the OP – makes you wonder about the rest of the ‘evidence’?

http://www.labourlist.org/gesture-politics-of-the-very-worst-kind

Hello,

Not often I get accused of nuance 🙂

My own position is that cuts should have been fought much more vigorously earlier on, and the case put for council tax increases, savings on agency and consulting staff and so on (I think I argued that on another post in November sometime – will try and find it). The PCS and Unison also have good guides on alternative suggestions for addressing the deficit and avoiding cuts (PCS) and arguing against cuts at local government level (Unison).

I also think that in the last few months, considerably more could have been done to argue the case for use of reserves and council tax increases as it became more obvious which services were going to be targeted. By arguing that, of course, I put myself in a position where I’m arguing that the cuts are a given, which is not a position I endorse particularly, but there is such a thing as reality. We’re at a point where people in wheelchairs are being thrown out of daycentres and people with disabilities facing the loss of care services. Things are very serious indeed and immediate measures need to be considered.

East Midlands Unison (Notts council staff are taking strike action this week) has a good alternate budget which I posted here:

http://www.hangbitching.com/2011/02/notts-county-staff-prepare-to-strike/

in which they suggest places where the council could make savings that could match the amount the (Tory) council plans to realise in job and service cuts.

What I said at our boozy night out was that year one had nearly gone (a fact which wasn’t being much recognised) and it was almost too late – much as I say above. That wasn’t meant to be an endorsement of that position – merely a statement of fact. I think Paul has similar ideas about reserves being used to buy time – he can expand on that. My argument is pretty straight – service cuts on this level are vicious and a lot more should and could be done to argue for council tax increases or alternative savings, or use of these tremendous reserves to buy time, as Dave Osler argued a couple of weeks back.

I do also feel that some services and sectors have had more publicity than others – forests, libraries, etc. Those things SHOULD be protected – it’s just that there are other things that need attention too. Tory councils in particular (although a few Labour ones are up there) are slicing through the thing from an ideological perspective. You look at Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet and you see that was happening even before the deficit “justified” such a position. I wrote on this site about Barnet trying to cut the sheltered housing service a couple of years ago – certainly long before this “all in it together stuff.”

If the subtext is that I think Miliband and Balls have turned their backs on local government more or less – yes, I do think that. I think I shared that at our evening out as well. Hopefully, I’ll be invited to another one.

Do you see? Cheers, Kate.

@ max – LOL ah, Labour List – that seat of objectivity. 🙂 I’ll add that link to the list if you like, just so we have something that isn’t from the left.

Most of the reports I linked to as “evidence” are BBC ones – those crazy socialists. Also – just out of interest – are you calling parents of severely disabled people like this guy (the one I spoke to) – liars by disputing his report?

http://nedluddcarer.blogspot.com/

Bit harsh.

This needs to be got through to as wide an audience as possible – especially to counter Astroturf lobby groups like the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, who are running a drip-drip-drip of knocking copy about Local Government (an edited version of this post http://bit.ly/g5uJQO was used earlier on LC).

The difference between what groups like the TPA lobby for, and the consequences for the ordinary people they claim to be fighting for, needs to be shown.

@ Tim – yep, that is my exact point, because I tell you – when you’re standing out in the ice and snow with still-young people who’ve been crippled by strokes (something that could happen to any of us):

http://www.hangbitching.com/2010/12/disabling-users/

and talking about the imminent loss of the daycentre they rely on, you want to hear some imaginative thinking. It’s not enough to say “Oh well, raising tax is electoral death (it isn’t necessarily), or “we can’t use reserves – they’ll run out and then what?” You have to make arguments FOR preservation of vital services, not against.

Adam Bienkov did a nice job on some of these non-job stories persons like Harry Phibbs are using to justify the continued slashing of local services (his own council’s, no doubt) and you’re right – the facts are that by attacking the sector as a whole, the likes of the TA catch everyone in the net – even those who simply don’t deserve to be attacked. I’ve talked to a great many people now, and some of them are very, very upset. If you have a kid with serious disabilities, you want to at least know that your taxes have gone towards the kind of service that’ll give them a decent life after you’ve gone. The guy I talked to above is an older man (his disabled son is about 28) and he shouldn’t have to be worrying about this.

Kate, I read Adam’s blog, which is always worthwhile. He makes an excellent point not just about Harry Phibbs (Harry Phibbs? So what’s news about that?) but the job title thing generally. The TPA are quick to jump on job titles – it’s much easier to demonise than asking “but what does their job really entail?” which would make it much less black and white.

I did an assignment at a Local Government site back in 2007, and since then, several of those I worked with have had to re-apply for their own jobs. Along with all the kicking from the TPA and Fat Eric, I do wonder about the state of morale right now.

Tim – yes, it’s an extremely irresponsible sort of ‘demonising’ of the sector if I can put it that way.

I read that Telegraph (I think it was) lead article about non-jobs last week. What people need to understand is that the end result of that is not slaughter at the top end of councils – it’s frontline service providers and users being thrown out in the rain.

I don’t believe that I have a particularly romantic view of the public sector, in the sense that I think it always needs to be scrutinised and care needs to be taken that the lolly doesn’t end up at the top end. I’ve said it a million times, but when I was a TU activist, for example, unions were forbidden from seeing SMG (senior management) pay scales and pay rates. That appalling lack of transparency needs to be dealt with and there will be people at that end of proceedings who have done a lot better out of the public purse than they should have. There was also the issue of the enormous fees paid to private consultancies – £200,000 for a change management programme is one I always remember and plenty more besides.

What we’re seeing now, though, is a wholesale slaughter at the front end and that is unacceptable. The taxpayers’ alliance needs to understand that the public sector is nuanced, to use Sunny’s word – there are service providers and there are those on the make and they are different beasts. I believe that because the public sector has increasingly been run along business lines, it reflects that capitalist model, if you like – a few rising to the top of the ladder and payscales, while the rest do their thing lower down the pecking order. That Notts Unison alternative budget I linked to suggests some post cuts at the higher end – a suggestion that always goes down like a cup of cold sick.

For now, though, we need clever and immediate suggestions. If Labour gave a direction to councils from HQ about council tax, reserves and alternative budgets on capital spend, we might see more action on that front. I think it’ll be a cold day before the two Eds back council tax increases – however small – though. The thing is – the point should have been debated and put to the public – especially if the alternative is a truly dreadful situation for those most in need.

@3 Kate,

“My own position is that cuts should have been fought much more vigorously earlier on, and the case put for council tax increases, savings on agency and consulting staff and so on”

Councils did not realistically have the option of increasing council tax. The combination of a cap on increases and incentive to freeze council taxes by central Government effectively meant the only sensible opion for councils is a council tax freeze.

Also for some services it is actually cheaper for Councils to use agency staff than permanent staff.

4 – Kate

The view of someone at the Islington meeting was that the protest merely insulted the Labour councillors who were trying to set a legal budget. This has been supported by other attendees. Presumably you believe in the rule of law?

I’ve read some of the reports, and the Cambridge one (for example) doesn’t say anything about reporters being banned as your OP suggests.

I’m not calling anyone a liar – just suggesting that inaccuracy and biased views of events won’t help your cause as they wil be easily refuted.

Not harsh at all – IMHO

Fungus,

I want to address this point about council tax in more detail.

You are absolutely right to say councils are between a rock and a very hard place with increases – Bob Neill set the parameters pretty firmly as recently as a couple of weeks ago:

http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/localgovernment/counciltaxcapping201112

He acknowledges that councils may set increases at their discretion in theory, but that the government will cap if councils transgress on certain conditions. They will also be excluded from incentives payouts if they overcharge on certain bands and/or increase the basic rate. The government is to-the-point on council tax, no question. I’d expect that from this administration.

My point is that the left – and I do mean the Labour hierarchy, as well as the rest of us – should be challenging government policy and rhetoric on distribution. It’s high time that we heard a better line on fair distribution from Miliband and that includes a discussion around council tax in this environment. I get a lot of handwringing and ‘gee, Kate, the rules are so strict – our hands our tied’ but that’s not enough in my view. People on the ground are screaming and they need adventurousness from their elected representatives. This is the time to take risks. If memory serves, the localism bill allows for local referendums on council tax increases from 2012 I think it is. The cynic in me presumes left politicians are sitting on their hands until those decisions are devolved to communities. That isn’t a lot of help this year.

I’d be interested in hearing views from councillors and MPs on ways to mitigate the awful effects of these cuts, instead of the standard – ‘oh well, we can’t move on council tax and we can’t move on reserves and we can’t shift capital spend, so essentially, we can’t move.’ I get a little tired of hearing people defend the status quo. That ain’t opposition.

In the last few days as the council meetings and protests have taken place I’ve seen more and more people mentioning Wisconsin, and what they’re doing there to resist cuts.

They’re into day 5 now of 24/7 protests and the world media is taking note as each country pushes home their cuts program.

Why aren’t we following Wisconsins lead?

Max – and linking to Labour List for a disqualifying argument doesn’t count as bias….?

Interested to note that you feel people can’t comment or protest from a public gallery. Presumably, you’ve heard of the right to protest?

Pick away, my boy. Those who want to find holes will find holes. None of it changes the fact that people are dreadfully upset at these cuts and have turned out in numbers to protest. They’re not all the hellcats you so desperately wish to paint them as, either. They’re parents and families. Come on. Have a heart. Are you really of the opinion that they should sit there and take it to give Labour councillors an easier ride?

Putting sarcasm aside for the moment, Max – I’d like to ask straight what you think people who feel they’re being railroaded should do. Others might also have comments on that.

I was at the Lewisham protests, where people rushed the town hall because Steve Bullock closed the public gallery. It wasn’t just a bunch of mad anarchists, either – there were people from the local pensioners’ forum and all sorts. I saw that one with my own eyes and filmed it. The point I’m making is that we’re seeing this kind of fury across the country. If people aren’t being heard, what should they do?

By arguing that, of course, I put myself in a position where I’m arguing that the cuts are a given, which is not a position I endorse particularly, but there is such a thing as reality.

But this is a key point isn’t it?

You know what the reality is, but you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you ask people to acknowledge that reality and then talk about strategy based on that.

Seems to be a few people who are haranguing Labour councils (or even Tory councils) haven’t talked about alternatives (you point to some, but they’re neither likely to be big enough in scale, nor always available to local govts).

I’m not saying all haven’t talked of alternatives, but the woman being interviewed regarding Islington council said on a video that she wanted councillors to not pass the budget – and that if Eric Pickles came by they would stand with the councillors.

Clearly, this is an absurd position. Eric Pickles won’t even come in – he’ll simply send for an officer who will sign off on a worse budget, because its legally required, and the cuts will be worse than these people want.

So when exactly are we going to talk about the reality of the situation?

Yes, that is a fair point, Sunny, but I would argue that I do put myself in a position where we discuss the reality – that’s why I’m eager to have the discussion about council tax, reserves, etc – stop gap stuff, to be sure, but perhaps a bit of a space-creator which reassures people a bit for the short-term.

The question is what happens when that space is created. Dave Osler talked recently about reserves being used to create space for Labour to rally the troops for a major fightback (his tongue was in his cheek, but we’ll use it for now). I don’t know that I see that one the horizon to be honest (like Dave), so would require some sort of indication from party worthies that they would consider such a rallying. There’s no point outside carpers like myself saying, “well – let’s deal with the reality and look for some money to create space for six months or so,” and Miliband coming along in six months’ time saying “cuts are good and we would have done the same thing anyway, so let me pour a bucket of shit on you lot.” The thing slices both ways.

So – I put it to you now. What’s Labour got in mind? I’ve put quite a few ideas out there this evening. Time to hear a few back. What is Labour going to do for these terribly distressed council service users?

…because to be frank, it is a little hard for me to believe that Labour hasn’t decided just to sit this one out. I don’t necessarily mean local councillors on the ground – there are some good people and good activists there. I mean Labour’s great leaders.

Every time I open my girly gob on notions like raised council tax and these enormous reserves, I get a whole lot of Labour blokes rushing in to pat me on the head and say “stay out of finance, love.” The fact is that I have a reasonable grasp of council finance (as far as anyone does – it’s a nightmare), but less of a grip on the reasons why Pickles’ freezes, caps and threats can’t be at least challenged by the opposition.

15 Kate

Of course people have the right to protest – I never said they didn’t. But people not part of the ‘protests’ also have a right to be heard, to listen to their councillors and to make their feelings known. I include in this people who may support the cuts being able to say so without harrassment.

Being removed by the police because the councillors can’t be heard and no-one else can say anything might go down well on various blogs but will not endear the ‘protest movement’ to the rest of the public, and may well have the reverse effect in terms of support.

You also have to answer the ‘so what would you do’ question which Ed Balls and his cohorts continually avoid answering.

Yep, fair points, Max. I would counter them to an extent, though, by saying that not all these people are professional protestors, as it were. The guy in Lancashire, for example, is a parent. He doesn’t seem to want to be a protestor particularly – he’s just had to become one. I think there are problems in sort of writing anyone who screams out angrily from a public gallery off as a professional troublemaker. I think those people are around – they’re just not the whole picture.

Agree with your point about pro-cuts people. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and to express it.

Also agree with your points about Mr Balls & friends. I am not a member of the Labour party, which I suppose is neither here nor there in this argument. I feel that the party’s rhetoric on local government cuts has been extremely weak, though, and have written a longer piece in which I make that clear. I’d be very keen to engage with Labour party members who are genuinely looking for alternatives to cuts and as I say, Unison and others have produced alternatives that would be at least as workable. I mention some of those above.

The problem is, of course, that anything that is perceived to sit that far out on the left spectrum – Miliband denies, alas, that he and the unions ever spent even five minutes together – is dismissed out of hand as junk economics. So – the centre ground continues to be fought over, service users languish and I am again written of as a deluded old bag. This last is fine, but the other two aren’t so great. I’ve spent a lot of time with service users in the last few months and their predicament is awful. And undeserved.

Ed Miliband and The Labour Party ..selling out working class people since forever …

There’s no point outside carpers like myself saying, “well – let’s deal with the reality and look for some money to create space for six months or so,” and Miliband coming along in six months’ time saying “cuts are good and we would have done the same thing anyway, so let me pour a bucket of shit on you lot.” The thing slices both ways.

Sure, but the4 current situation isn’t exactly a model of sensible discussion either, is it? We have people shouting betrayal, which leads Labour councillors to hate them because their own position is not being understood – and therefore the activists V Labour councillors positions get further apart.

What you’re essentially saying is, you don’t want to accept or talk about the reality of the situation in case Labour “pour a bucket of shit” on people (I’m not sure what you mean by that in practice) – but that means we still have people talking at each other and fighting each other than working out workable plans.

You accept that Labour councils will have to make cuts and can’t avoid them, yes? As Paul pointed out, the reserves can’t avoid making cuts, only delaye them. Yes?

Don’t recall where I read it, but councils with biggest cuts also have some pretty.impressive reserves on hand.

Anyone have a link for this?

24. Furious Gerald

Some of the suggestions for Councils saving money show a real lack of understanding of how local government works:

– Council Tax – Pickles has announced that if Councils freeze CT this year he will refund them up to the value of a 2.5% rise. You can bet that when it comes to it, he will cap rises at 2.5% as soon as a Labour Council tries to raise it by 2.6% or above.

– Reserves – Councils generally aren’t sitting on piles of money. If they are, the money is generally earmarked. The point here is that spending reserves on keeping a service open is only delaying a cut. You can only spend reserves once so you’re faced with the service cut when that money has been spent AND you don’t have any reserves left should the electrics in the town hall pack up or something like that.

– Agency staff – If you look at the areas where agency staff are used, it tends to be largely in social care and a few other areas where qualified permanent staff are hard to come by. Anyway, just because someone works through an agency, it doesn’t mean that they’re a frivolous waste of money. They’re doing a Council job too and have a family just like a regular staff member.

– Consultants – it’s really easy to have a go at the notion of consultants. Everyone assumes that Councils are employing Management Consultants to tell existing Council staff how to do their jobs. In fact, ‘consultants’ are used when there is a peice of work that needs to be done for which expert skills are required (e.g. building a school). The person is employed on a consultancy basis because once the school is built, their services are no longer required and Councils wouldn’t want them on the books as a permanent staff members with entitlement to redundancy etc!

So, it’s really easy to have a go at Councils and it’s something that the hard left and the government have in common. When the left turn on Councils, Eric Pickles delights. Councils have a legal obligation to set a balanced budget and it comes down to a choice between doing that or not. Ire should be directed at the government who are cutting Council funding by this much. They’re the ones who are destroying services.

Ah, F Gerald – I was a council employee and a trade union activist in local government and have a very good notion of how council works.

You miss my point entirely, which was that if Labour really wants to prove a commitment to those who are struggling so awfully with these cuts, it needs to take a deep breath and offer an alternative dialogue to cuts. Your argument is that there is no alternative and councillors shouldn’t countenance breaking the law, or directly challenge the existing organisation, because it can’t be challenged.

I note you haven’t quite managed to offer constructive alternatives to cuts – only to repeat the prevailing rhetoric on the reasons why nothing can be done and why cuts must go ahead. I can almost hear you toeing the party line. I understand perfectly Bob Neill and Eric Pickles’ restrictions on council tax increases – you will note above that I discussed Neill’s very recent letter to councils on that topic in detail. We all know what the rules and restrictions are around council tax increases – what we need to hear more of is how the opposition plans to challenge those rules, or even that the opposition finds those rules unacceptable. Opposition is about doing exactly that, isn’t it? Reserves are not in short supply – let us not forget that services were sacrificed anyway while they were accrued. The point I’m making – and it’s a salient one – is that Miliband has no intention of granting us an anticuts rhetoric. Labour councillors are foundering with no direction from HQ. More importantly, service users at local government are being thrown to the wolves.

Once again, all I’m hearing is people like yourself defend the status quo – you deliver of us of yet another tiresome list of things that can’t be done. I note nobody else from the Labour party has taken up my invitation to offer alternatives to these cuts either. That is one of the reasons why cuts at local level are going ahead.

if Labour really wants to prove a commitment to those who are struggling so awfully with these cuts, it needs to take a deep breath and offer an alternative dialogue to cuts.

Its not clear what this means Kate. Labour cllrs can tell you until the cows come home that they don’t want these cuts either, and they’re looking into ways to avoid them.

But if you keep repeating that the cuts are avoidable, then why should they listen? You yourself know that any plan to not cut at all from a local council facing up to 6-8% cut in funding is a non-starter.

So spell out in detail what exactly you’d like to see from Labour.

The Labour Party is a corpse … we need to ignore it …


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