#CovBudget2015 – what happened, and what should have happened
At Coventry Council’s budget meeting on Tuesday February 24th, the governing Labour group voted unanimously to support a budget containing £15million worth of cuts. These cuts will lead to the closure of libraries, adult education centres, children’s centres, and the sacking of many council workers including lollipop men and women.
The National Chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), former MP and Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, handed in a 1,500 strong petition against the cuts to the Cabinet meeting held in the morning before the budget “debate”. When presenting the petition, Dave argued that the council should use their reserves to fund services and build a campaign to get the money back from central Government, and campaign for an incoming Government to provide financial relief to councils which used reserves to fund services.
Dave pointed out that the council has doubled its reserves from £40million to £80million, as well as making political decisions to use reserves for the ACL loan (£14million), investing in Coombe Abbey hotel (over £6million) and £millions more in Study Inn sites – “why don’t they make the political decision to use these reserves to fund services we need now, not for projects in 5, 6 or 7 years time?”
“This is nothing new. 40 years ago the Council faced cuts from a Labour Government under the IMF, and the Council leader, Arthur Waugh Sr., called a meeting in St Mary’s Hall of every Labour local authority, to call on the Labour Government not to make cuts.” Dave Nellist
In his brief response to reject the petition, Labour councillor Damian Gannon, Cabinet member for finance, claimed that reserves cannot legally be used – we would strongly challenge this claim, and ask under what law is it illegal for the council to use its own reserves? Even Tory minister Eric Pickles has called on councils to use reserves, and he isn’t known for advocating illegal budgets!
Mr Gannon also claimed that the majority of the reserves cannot be used – however, even taking into account the £18million set aside for schools, the £10million the council plans to spend on privately-built old people’s homes (which should be built by the council, not private businesses), £4million for Ofsted improvements and around £3.5million that the council has used to fund children’s services and disabled children’s transport (demonstrating that the reserves can be used to fund expenditure!), there is around £45.5million left. Instead of setting this money aside for future projects, or “for a rainy day”, the council should acknowledge that it’s already “raining” and use it now!
If the councillors believed that the election of a Labour Government in May would make a difference, they could begin campaigning now for an incoming Labour Government to reverse all cuts, restore funding to local Government and reimburse any money the council had to use from reserves. However, despite council leader Ann Lucas’ theatrical prayer for a Labour Government in the council chamber, the evidence suggests that they know a Labour Government will act in the same way as the Tories. Perhaps they have heeded the words of their director of finance, Chris West, who said recently that “there is very little difference between the financial plans of the two main parties. Whoever wins the next election, the picture is broadly the same.”
Reflecting on the Cabinet meeting at which the petition was rejected, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition activist and community campaigner Robert McArdle said “It seems as though Labour councillors are willing to use reserves for anything except fighting cuts, and aren’t prepared to mount a battle against austerity.”
Before the budget meeting in the afternoon a group of trade unionists and socialists lobbied the council to ask the councillors going in if they would vote against cuts. Sadly none of the councillors were swayed – we believe this shows the need for an anti-austerity challenge at the next election, to elect councillors who will listen and fight.
The budget meeting was more eventful than most council meetings, particularly as the opposition to cuts throughout was demonstrated by the presentation of 3 petitions against library closures – one of them presented by Labour cllr Ram Lakha, who went on to vote for the budget which will probably lead to the closure of the libraries!
Labour’s Damian Gannon moved the budget, which was described by a Tory cllr as “a Gannon korma not a Nellist vindaloo”! Even this is perhaps flattering to the budget, however, which many people across Coventry will have found hard to swallow.
For the most part the budget consisted of “tangible service cuts that our residents will see and feel”, in cllr Gannon’s own words. However, the proposal of a £500,000 “transition fund” to enable “community groups” to run services was notable. This concept chimes perfectly with David Cameron’s vision of a “big society”, in which the state and local government have ceased to run services and they are instead taken over by volunteers – not the first time that our Labour council has echoed Tory values.
While volunteers can do valuable work, a team of untrained individuals, however dedicated, will not be able to run services as effectively as trained staff. The council is using this fund as a way to distract from the massive damage these cuts will cause. It is also important to ask how much of this £500K will be going to private vultures like PriceWaterhouseCooper, who the council have previously used?
Cllr Gannon said that the council has “no choice but to make cuts”, and “has made bold and brave decisions”. A bold and brave decision would be to fight the cuts, not do the Tories’ dirty work!
During council leader Ann Lucas’ speech, despite appealing to the trade unions to work with the council, she attacked their position towards the council as “drivel” and criticised the “outraged middle class” for protesting against cuts. We want the council to work with the trade unions as well – but we want them to work together to fight the cuts, not make them.
Coventry Council does have a choice. They could use their reserves to fund services and build a campaign against cuts – but they’ve chosen instead to make ordinary people pay with our jobs and services. Cllr Gannon rightly said that the Tories are “on the side of the few not the many” – but which side are Labour on?
The Socialist Party will keep building the campaign against austerity within the trade unions, in our communities and in elections as part of TUSC . We will also campaign against the capitalist system, the cause of austerity – and replace it with a socialist system, run by the millions not the millionaires.