Friday, 18 November 2011

'Let Them Eat Cake!': Report from Brighton Budget Consultations

The independent Quango 'Demsoc Brighton' was commissioned by the Green Party administration, with the support of the Labour and Tory opposition councillors to run a consultation exercise on their proposed budget cuts. Demsoc's website extended this invitation to Brighton and Hove's citizens:
“If you want to have your say on how they spend that money, set your own council budget priorities and even suggest bigger cuts, you can come along to one of our Budget discussion events....
If you’re wondering whether you should come, remember that event participants get a better deal than councillors:

  • Like councillors, participants will have finance staff and experts on hand to answer questions.
  • Like councillors, participants will be able to discuss council spending decisions on the basis of good information
  • Like councillors, participants will be able to pass their views directly to the council leadership and senior team.
  • Unlike councillors, participants will get cake.”
In fact, even this enticement didn't encourage many citizens to attend the three budget 'consultations', a total of 35-40 attended, and at the Saturday afternoon consultation in Patcham the eight participants were almost outnumbered by council officers and DemSoc staff. How much did this exercise cost the council, at a time when all three political parties on the council spout about 'efficiency savings'? Socialist Party members attended all three meetings and found little enthusiasm for the Green Council’s cuts agenda.
It was made very clear from the start that the one option not being offered to us by the council was to resist the cuts, we were just being asked 'slice a smaller cake'. In answer to a question by a Socialist Party member one officer agreed that councillors would not face fines and imprisonment or be banned from office for setting a needs budget like Liverpool and Lambeth Socialist councillors in the 1980's. At worst, they might be 'suspended' from office after investigation. She argued, however, that there was a risk that Eric Pickles could 'impose' the cuts he wants. This begs the question of whether Brighton's Green and Labour councillors have a mandate to impose Eric Pickles's cuts for him. Most participants seemed to agree with us that councillors should have been present to answer that question, and not hide behind officers.
There was also little enthusiasm for proposing cuts, let alone follow the Demsoc websites' exhortation to 'suggest bigger cuts'. We were not given any real indication of what reducing any given budget would mean. Council departments are being asked to prepare spending plans which cut their services by 5, 10, and 15% but no figures were available for what it would mean to cut services by these amounts (and still less of what services could be provided for an extra 5, 10, or 15%).
So whilst the Demsoc facilitators were very willing to consider and pass on our message of 'no cuts, fight to return funding stolen from Brighton and Hove', these meetings were a very narrow exercise, designed to produce evidence in support of a cuts budget; we were asked to rank different areas of services in order to construct a picture of what should or shouldn't be cut.
The council's policy seeks to protect 'the most vulnerable'. But making cuts causes more people to become vulnerable. Something which was borne out by the experiences of other participants as carers, youth workers and service users. As one Socialist Party member commented 'it is like squeezing a balloon', cuts in one area will impact elsewhere. In particular Brighton and Hove has a bigger than average private rented sector. The lack of decent, affordable housing has a huge knock-on affect in other service areas. Key to this is rent-capping and control as well as an expansion of the council housing stock with managed democratically by residents and staff, and enough funding provided for maintenance.
Many of the projected costs for particular services were based on the assumption that existing trends (e.g. the number of looked after children, around 500 in B&H and steadily declining) would continue. However, it is likely that the impact of the cuts and economic crisis: redundancies, squeezed wages, greater exploitation, meaning unemployment for some and longer hours for others, poorer housing conditions, homelessness and also less free time – must mean greater demand for these services. In fact the overall savings expected this year has increased from 16 to £20m due to recession-related pressures - increased fuel prices, greater demand for services, and so on.
In many areas the meetings thought that cuts were simply not possible, in others that more funding should be made available! This does not mean efficiency savings cannot and should not be found. For instance, additional social workers are now employed to conduct assessments previously done by a private company, saving money by bringing that service back into the public sector. This opened up a debate on whether 'out-sourcing' (getting private companies to run public services) was acceptable if the guiding principle is providing for people's needs instead of profit.
However any savings found without attacking staff and services should be re-invested into other areas of council services where they are needed, not packaged up as blood money for the banks c/o the government! How much more enthusiasm would there be among council staff and the local community to identify real efficiency, to cut out waste and to improve work practices if they knew those savings would be re-invested in areas they know need improving? But instead the only choice they are being given is: 'your job or his?'
In the strange political lexicon shared by Tory, Liberal, New Labour, the word 'efficiency' means wage cuts and attacks on workers terms and conditions. The council officer from adult services at the Patcham consultation was quite clear that in-house services are often more 'expensive' because staff are paid better wages. However one participant, whose dying husband was in a care home in Hayward's Heath, described how she had to take his clothes home to wash them, showing the impact of this kind of 'outsourcing' and 'marketisation' on the quality of care!
Council HQ: Brighton Town Hall where the council is drawing up plans for job cuts
The Socialist Party are very clear; there should be no cuts, a campaign needs to be built for the £43 million gap in government funding to be returned to Brighton and Hove. Local government is not just a letter-box for central government; councillors are our democratically elected representatives and they should lead a fight-back against the funding reduction, or stand aside in favour of representatives who have the guts for that fight.
Councillors elected on a 'no cuts' platform need to make good that mandate and lead a fight-back demanding the funding back from this government. We pointed out that protests in Brighton have gone from 600 to 4,000 in under a year; a movement is building! On November 30th Brighton and Hove's 6,000 council staff will strike against pension cuts, why would they fight against pension cuts but not demand the funding is returned from central government? If the Greens will not campaign for a fighting lead against the cutbacks; we, in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, will! The Green budget proposals will be presented on 8th December, and the full budget decided on 23rd February 2012.
Cake or no cake, the Brighton and Hove Socialist Party and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition will be there to defend our services!