Friday, December 03, 2010

'Carrying out orders' is no defence for Labour councillors

Local councils in England will shortly get the news they’ve dreaded hearing ever since George Osborne announced his massive cuts package last month – details of the reduced funding they will get from Whitehall for 2011-12.

Osborne’s “spending review” is based, among other calculations, on slashing local government spending by a mammoth 27% over the next four years. To achieve that, central government grants could be cut by over half, according to independent analysis.

The Coalition has frozen council tax – the only other major source of council funding – so the net result has to be the axing of tens of thousands of jobs, the devastation of essential local services and a sharp rise in charges to local residents. Birmingham City Council is already planning to cut its workforce by 10,000 over the next four years.

Areas like the North-east, where public sector jobs are the mainstay, will be the hardest hit. The Association of North East Councils has written to ministers telling them that they are “undeliverable” unless the government wants to devastate the region, especially as the cuts are scheduled to be heaviest in the first of the four-year cycle in a process known as “frontloading”.

Some Labour-controlled councils are not waiting for the grant announcement. Earlier this week, Lewisham Council passed a £16 million cuts budget amid a stormy protest.

Others like Lambeth leader Steve Reed are making excuses in advance for carrying out government diktats. Writing on his blog, Reed admits that councils “across Britain [including his own] are working out how to implement funding cuts on a scale not seen since before the Second World War”. His main gripe is that the cuts are being “frontloaded” to force councils to close services down “rather than manage the cost reductions in a more sensible and measured way.”

But when all is said and done, Reed and his fellow Labour councillors intend to make the cuts as demanded while claiming that they are not their fault because they originate with the Coalition. That’s true of course – but someone has to carry them into practice and Reed and Labour councillors around the country may moan and groan but they will obey orders because to do otherwise would mean defiance and potentially put them outside the law. And we can’t have Labour councillors put in such a dangerous and difficult position!

If any of them had an ounce of political courage, Labour councillors who control most major authorities would resign their seats and fight bye-elections on the pledge of refusing to draw up and pass a cuts budget. They would mobilise their communities and council trade unions to fight the Coalition in the way Lambeth Council of the early 1980s fought the Thatcher government. But don’t hold your breath on this one. Instead, they intend to pass on the cuts and smash services.

In these circumstances, local communities and local authority trade unions have no other choice but to begin a struggle to oust the councillors from their cosy offices and council chambers. They should reject the argument that councillors are just “carrying out orders” because this not an acceptable defence. Let the Coalition send in their own people to do the dirty work.

The way the cuts are being made ready at town hall level prove once and for all that local government is a fiction. We are talking centralised, undemocratic Whitehall control. Local democracy died a long time ago and it’s time to move on. That’s one of the themes for discussion at the December 11 People’s Assemblies event in London. Register for it today.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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