Having attended three of the budget consultation meetings and heard reports from the fourth I think it Is time to discuss the nature of the presentations made and the public response to them.
After the Jaws of Doom campaign and the issue of green papers suggesting the closure of whole branches of council services, Albert was able to present his £85,000,000 of salami slicing cuts as a reprieve even if temporary from worse things to come.
This goes some way to explain the rather muted response of the participants compared to previous years.. Others are probably the claims of the Tories and media that the recession is ending, and a certain war weariness with the seemingly endless struggle against cuts.
Obviously there was no enthusiasm for Albert’s approach and the points we made opposing privatisation, volunteers replacing paid trained workers, and for a mass campaign against government funding cuts were well received.
The paranoid response of Ian Ward and to lesser degree Albert Bore to accusations of acting as the coalition’s enforcers and to demands that instead they set a budget based on needs shows that they feel defensive and vulnerable, and reflects the unease with their approach within the Labour group of councillors.
The exposure of the rip-off nature of the Capita IT contract by David Bailey and others has obviously hit home. The draft budget included cuts of £20 million per year to the contract, but under sustained pressure at the meetings Ian Ward promised the whole contract would be reviewed. The economic benefits of ending the contract completely would be considered.
Bridget Jones was in the happy position of being able to announce an extra £9.2 million for child protection and thus deflect criticism of the appalling effect of previous cuts in this area. It is good to see Bridget engaging with us publicly on the web site over this. The extra money is coming from the schools fund and it was not clear what services to schools it provided previously, or whether the schools partnership will accept the change of use.
The other cut to children’s services which raised particular anger was the proposed closure of the remaining children’s homes and the renewed threat to respite care which this means.
Several old people and carers also raised the dangers of privatising adult social care. Vulnerable disabled or old people could be exploited by predatory private companies or individuals. The council and the NHS could be left to pick up the pieces, often at great cost.
Although strictly speaking not part of the consultation the disastrous consequences for the mobility of disabled people posed by the proposal by CENTRO to end or charge for Ring and Ride was also raised in the meetings.
The main discussion around leisure services concerned the proposal to replace existing council run leisure centres by a small number of new centres constructed with public money but run by private firms. The councillors were unable to explain how private companies could run the centres at no cost to the council and make a profit while the council could not.
But some of the biggest issues are still to come in consultations around the district budgets. This is where the withdrawal of the council from services will most be seen – parks without park keepers, libraries without librarians, neighbourhood offices without trained staff.
The biggest falsehood peddled by the Labour leadership is the “dented shield” defending the vulnerable till a better day. The poor and vulnerable suffer most from every cut the council makes, and without a struggle the “better day” will never come. The coalition parties and Labour nationally are committed to austerity without end. In this sense the consultations are a sham because the path is already set and only mass resistance can change it.