As local councils begin setting their 2012-2013 budgets, working-class people face another round of attacks as councils across the country put jobs and services back on the chopping block.
Proposed job losses at larger councils figure in the hundreds. Leeds City Council plans “savings” of £55 million, including axing 400 jobs. Swindon Borough Council’s draft budget seeks to shed over 100 jobs as part of a £12 million cuts programme, including cutting trade-union facility time. £24 million and 300 jobs could go at Labour-run Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
Nearly 400 jobs are on the line as Salford Council looks to make cuts of £24 million. Town hall workers, already facing increased workload after around 600 job cuts there on 2010/2011, are also facing a pay freeze. The cuts will amount to an overall reduction of the council’s workforce by 10% over the last two years.
On the Isle of Wight, the Tory council is proposing even deeper cuts than last year, despite town hall unions identifying significant underspends in many areas of the council’s budget.
Councils in the London Borough of Kingston are planning a £30 million cuts programme including the privatisation of care homes and over 100 job losses.
The rhetoric from councillors has not shifted since last year’s round of cuts. Tories, such as Leeds’s Barry Anderson, blame “Labour’s national legacy” for the need to make cuts. Labour councillors, like Mohammed Purvez (the leader of Stoke’s council) bleat about attempting to protect the most vulnerable but resign themselves to making “difficult decisions” in “difficult times”. Stoke council also rejected a proposal to cut the pay of highly-paid staff by 5%, preferring to make lower-paid workers balance the books by losing their jobs.
Whatever brand of rhetoric accompanies, the effect is much the same for those on the receiving end. The cuts add up to a gradual chipping-away at the quality of life for working-class people. Two care homes in Stoke will close, and students over 16 will lose their right to free transport to school. Council subsidies for children’s swimming lessons will be cut and free bus travel for over 65s will be reduced. Local museums will be transferred out of public ownership or shut down. Labour-led Bradford Council also plans to target community services for savings, as councils across Yorkshire plan huge cuts; nearly 2,000 jobs could go across Bradford, Doncaster, Kirklees and Rotherham Councils.
There are also horror stories of complete profligacy by councils making cuts. Croydon Council in South London spent over £8 million in 2011 paying employment agency Comensura to provide it with short-term managerial staff, far more than it would have spent by hiring workers on permanent contracts. It plans to shed 300 jobs. Scarborough Council bought iPads for all of its 50 councillors, but will cut over £2 million from its budget and cut 37 jobs.
Last year’s round of budget cuts saw a flurry of direct actions outside town halls and council chambers, some of which staged occupations and disrupted councils’ budget-setting meetings.
This year, so far, opposition has been somewhat more low-key, although local labour-movement groups in Leeds, Kingston, Swindon and elsewhere have organised demonstrations or pickets.
Fighting the Greens’s “compassionate” cuts
The Green administration of Brighton council is proposing £10.5 million cuts for 2012, with an additional £17.7 million for 2013/14.
Most departments are facing 5 to 15% cuts in services. The main cuts over the year 2012/13 will be to adult social care (£3.2m), children's services (£2.78m), housing (£2.09m), communities (£1.1m), city regulation and infrastructure (£4.85m) and resources and finance (£1.85m). Up to 120 council jobs will be lost, although this figure only includes permanent posts, as they are also stopping the usage of agency staff in many areas, which is not included in the figures.
There will be increased parking charges and charges for registering births, deaths and marriages, scrapping mobile libraries, reducing library opening times and closing many public toilets. The cuts in areas such as adult social care and children's services will see day centres, meals on wheels and community care cut, as well as cuts to mental health services, childcare training schemes and children's centres.
In particular, school attendance budgets and assistance to young people not in education, training or employment will face cuts.
There are also little nasty things hidden away in the budget, such as the 100% cut to the Talking Book service, whereby blind people can request that (any) book be audio recorded for them, which is proposed to be abolished.
And, despite their “Green” principles, they are also increasing allotment fees by 67%, pricing out lower income families from growing their own food.
The Greens claim to be a pro-trade union party. Since they got elected in May they have made much of the fact that all Councillors are trade union members. They have given us some concessions; when we struck over the pensions in November, they ordered our HR department to delay the strike deductions until February so we wouldn't lose money before Christmas. They have also introduced a Living Wage for Brighton Council workers (with the minimum hourly rate now being £7.19), which they funded by cutting the salary of senior directors.
They also have lots of anti-austerity policies, campaigning for progressive taxation and the abolition of Trident. They even conducted their local election campaign on the basis that they would “fight the cuts”, and last year every single Green councillor voted against the Tory cuts budget.
Before they got elected in May, many individual councillors were members of our Brighton Stop the Cuts group, and regularly attended meetings and demonstrations alongside us. Since their election this hasn’t been the case.
Our Brighton Stop the Cuts group hosted a public debate with the Greens a few weeks ago, and their essential message is that their “hands are tied”.
They say they don’t “want” to pass on the Government's cuts, and feeling sorry about having to do so. Their most-used claim is that they’re “being compassionate and effective in protecting the vulnerable”. But to workers being handed redundancy notices, it doesn't matter if the person who's doing it is smiling or crying crocodile tears.
The Greens were voted onto Brighton Council on an anti-cuts platform, but they had absolutely no strategy for it. They have no roots, or belief in, the organised strength of the working class to be able to effect change.
They can be forced into u-turns on some issues; very recently there was a colourful community-led campaign opposing the cuts to the music service (which would have prevented lower income families accessing subsidies to music lessons), and they bowed under pressure and agreed to save this (although without specifying where the money to save it was going to come from).
The two trade unions organising at the council — GMB and Unison — have a close working relationship, and will be stepping up the fight against cuts, whichever party is making them.
The GMB took strike action against the last administration when they were threatening to cut workers’ pay, and won, so will not hesitate in doing so again in future fights over jobs.
Joseph Healy, founder member of Green Left (a left-wing faction in the Green Party) and key activist in the party’s Trade Union group, has resigned, citing the Brighton budget amongst his reasons.
For more, see his blog here.