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.
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’C allaghan 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.