Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Brighton Green Council and the Cuts

By Paul Moorhouse, Brighton and Hove Socialist Party
Brighton local government elections resulted in 23 Green councillors, 18 Tories and 13 Labour, giving the Greens control over the council cabinet. This result reflects a mood that is not only against the Tories and Liberal Democrats but also against New Labour and the cuts more broadly. The Greens campaigned on an anti-cuts platform, although with a distinct lack of a strategy to oppose the cuts, and making it clear they would end up making them 'under protest'.

Others on the left have taken a lenient position towards the Greens, arguing that they should be supported 'until they start to make cuts'. The Socialist Party has consistently argued that, due to their lack of a strategy to defy the government's austerity agenda, the Greens would inevitably slash local jobs and services.
Green Councillors
In 2006 Green councillors in Brighton were tested on the issue of privatisation, when they supported the transfer of council housing management to a private company. A long campaign by ‘Defend Council Housing’ saw these Labour-led plans overturned and the council housing stock remained under public control. The Greens lack of support for the DCH campaign was disappointing; it showed that when the Greens are actually put to the test, they fold.
At the budget meeting on 3rd March the Greens and Labour proposed a joint amendment to the Tory budget. The amendments reduced the impact of the cuts, but only by £3 million, leaving £25m of cuts intact. The Greens then voted against the budget they and Labour had amended, with Labour shamefully abstaining, allowing the budget to pass on Tory votes. Read more about the budget meeting here.
Brighton Stop the Cuts Coalition
Early in the year anti-cuts strategy was debated in the Brighton Stop the Cuts Coalition (BSTCC), aiming to produce an 'anti-cuts pledge' for council candidates to sign. During these debates the Greens argued they would not oppose all the cuts and that they, while making the cuts, will be more compassionate and effective in protecting the vulnerable. This remains to be seen. However, managing the decline instead of reveling in it (at the recent budget meeting the Tories danced, laughed and cheered in the council chamber to celebrate passing £25m of cuts!) is simply not enough. We argued instead for a campaign for a needs budget, to restore every penny of the funding stolen from Brighton and Hove by the government.
The Greens argued that councillors have no choice when it comes to accepting these cuts. We countered this by pointing to the example of Liverpool City Council, where 47 Labour councillors defied Thatcher and built a mass movement to back-up the council in setting a budget to reflect local need instead of the government's dictates.
The Greens argued that a similar movement could not be built in Brighton or anywhere else in the country. This underestimates the strength of feeling against the cuts locally. Since early 2010 Brighton has seen an ever growing wave of protests and demonstrations; early last year the Trades Council 'March for Jobs' attracted 500 people, hundreds attended numerous lobbies of council budget meetings, 2,000 marched against cuts in October 2010, 3,000 pupils and students marched in November and 4,000 striking workers marched on June 30th this year!

Except for the two Green councillors present BSTCC adopted our position unanimously (see below for BSTCC election pledge).

Budget Strategy

The Green council's Medium Term Financial Strategy leading up to 2015 has since been published. It points out the Formula Grant from central government is expected to be £101million for 2012/13, a reduction of £11million over the current year. Over the Spending Review period Formula Grant for Brighton & Hove is forecast to fall in cash terms by approximately one third or £43million.
The Greens are requesting all service areas to draw up scenarios of 5-15% cuts. A consultation procedure will then take place leading up to the full council meeting to adopt the budget. This will see discussions conducted with community groups, trade unions, charities and others including launching an online consultation where you can 'balance your own budget' (www.budgetsimulator.com/brightonandhove).
According to this website:
All councils are facing difficult choices about how to balance budgets with the government’s reductions in public spending. In Brighton & Hove, we have some difficult decisions to make and are keen to understand better how people of all ages who live in, work in, or visit the city would choose to spend public money.”
The assumption underlying the calculator is that a 'standstill' budget - protecting existing services - would be 6% 'over budget' and lead to a 17.1% council tax rise. Against this background we are being asked to 'prioritise' services. Drawing up a budget which modestly increases all expenditure by 5%, results in a 32.2% increase in council tax. Cutting ALL services by 5% would still mean a 2% council tax increase, it would be necessary to cut all children's services by a further 5% to balance the budget!
This approach will cause division between public and private sector workers, the unemployed and employed, and between different council sectors and service users. How is this different from the tactics of any of the other mainstream parties? Without a far-sighted strategy rooted in the organised strength of the working-class, the Greens are crumpling in the face of government attacks.
The 'solution' of the Greens is to “...raise council tax by 3.5% in order to protect as far as possible services for the most vulnerable”. The actual cost of this over three years will be about £161.00, or £3 a week for a household in a band D property. This is just one of many tax rises that will carry out government cuts by shifting the burden of the crisis onto the shoulders of workers.
Whilst the plan confirms the Green's commitment to a 'living wage' for council workers of £7.19 which will have a limited impact on some employees at the bottom of the wage scale, it is also based on the assumption that it is acceptable for the council to budget for a 0.5% increase in wages in 12/13 when they are anticipating 'general inflation' to be 2.0% and presumably expecting their workforce to pay the 3.5% increase in council tax that they plan, on top of the increased workloads arising from ‘reduced budget allocations' (or ‘cuts’).
At the same time it also assumes a 10% cut in council tax benefit expenditure from April 2013. £24.9 million was paid out in CTB in 2009-10 and a cut of this scale must hit the 'most vulnerable' which the strategy claims to be protecting, as well as many 'better off' tax payers.
Some in the Green Party have been up in arms about the council strategy. A handful of Green Left members in Brighton fought a valiant battle for a needs budget strategy within the local Green party. Two Green Left members were candidates in the local elections, and they both signed the BSTCC pledge to oppose all the cuts despite the Green Party leadership telling candidates not to sign. Of these two, one was elected but quickly retreated from any idea of opposing all the cuts (Phelim McCafferty, Brunswick and Adelaide), and the other (Pip Tindall) resigned from the Green party altogether to join the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.

The situation in Brighton and Hove will become much worse: public sector cuts, a lack of decent affordable housing, and the pressure of unemployment in the surrounding towns and villages will all take their toll in the next few years. The council cuts will simply add to this toxic mix. The movement is growing against the cuts. It could be united and grow exponentially behind a council strategy of refusing to make any of the cuts, but the Greens are too pessimistic to even attempt to give such a lead.
Not only November 30th but an overall strategy of building a movement opposed to all cuts, with one element of it being the campaign for a 'needs budget' will be a chance to draw the working class together to oppose every single cut, anything less will only serve to divide and ultimately destroy the anti-cuts movement.

BSTCC election pledge 2011:
"If elected I pledge to:
1. Oppose and vote against any attempts to set Council budgets which will result in cuts to public services and local jobs or a worsening of terms and conditions for council staff;
2. Oppose and vote against any attempts to cut or privatise individual public services;
3. Oppose any above inflation increase in council tax and instead campaign for a progressive national tax system where the rich pay more;
4. Propose an alternative ‘no-cuts’ budget which could involve use of reserves and/or council borrowing powers and a campaign against the government to replace the funding they are cutting from local government;
5. Fully support industrial action taken by trade unions to defend their members’ jobs, terms and conditions from cuts;
6. Use my position to argue against all cuts and support and publicise campaigns against privatisation and cuts in jobs, services or benefits."