Green finance lead Cllr Ollie Sykes responds to to Cllr Warren Morgan’s budget cuts Argus interview:
With the recent announcement by George Osborne of 25-40% cuts to all unprotected departments, councils around the country face a horrendous situation during the next few years. In Brighton & Hove the looming challenges for the local Labour administration echo those which the Greens had to deal with while in administration, though there was precious little understanding from our Labour colleagues at the time.
It is not the case, as Cllr Morgan suggests, that the Green administration left the city ill-prepared for this situation. Throughout our term we rose to the challenge of the relentless and continuing government attack on public services and worked hard to minimise the impact on the city. We were one of the few councils around the country which, in spite of being cut more than most, managed to maintain children’s centres, libraries, supported bus routes, public parks and highway improvements.
Much of what Labour are calling for, reducing the council building foot-print, reducing management costs and other efficiencies, we were already doing or preparing for. We set about closer working with neighbouring authorities in the ‘Greater Brighton’ region, while redesigning working practices, to enable the selling of council buildings like Kings House. We attracted major investment into the city to strengthen our local economy, nurture business start-ups and new housing, all generating more long-term tax receipts for the Council. We supported the highly successful Living Wage campaign, while reducing the wage-bill for senior management. We negotiated a loan and partnership approach for the i360 to generate £1million extra each year for Council funds. Helped by parking charges, we were able to continue to fund our statutory obligations to free bus travel for older and disabled people. Crucially, we made it quite clear we opposed the government’s austerity agenda. We proposed a referendum for a 5.9% Council Tax increase to mitigate government cuts and give local people a choice to save valued services over the longer term by contributing a bit more. This was blocked by both Labour and Conservative councillors.
There are not many more efficiencies to be found and the need for further savings will mean our public services are spread more thinly or cut completely.
Cllr Morgan says the current situation takes us “beyond party politics”. However, it is crystal clear that these cuts are as much about the Conservative-led ideology of a shrunken state as they are about the need to cut the national deficit. Labour’s lack of opposition in parliament to the latest austerity budget was disappointing for millions of voters. I would have hoped for more from this Labour administration than to, just as meekly, pass on these cuts to local public services.
Nationally, the Greens oppose the ideology of ‘austerity’ and seek to work with others who share our perspective. We would pursue less destructive ways of reducing the country’s deficit. Locally we think the council needs to hear from residents and families that might be affected well before key decisions are made. While we support the setting up of Fairness Commission, we think it needs to be accompanied by political work by Labour, advocating against further cuts to local government and the relentless squeeze of public services, as we did when in administration.
It’s unfortunate that Labour appears to reject this approach, with senior members of the administration recently saying “it’s not time to protest”. Labour has also recently rejected the early publication of their budget plans as part of our proposal for a programme of public engagement on the impact of more cuts. We think that such an approach would allow more robust conclusions to be drawn about options for the council on the future for the city. Not just different levels of council tax, but also different options for income generation, for working across the public and third sector and considering new ways of delivering services.
While the Greens fully appreciate the important role of the community groups and voluntary organisations in the city and the power of partnership work with them, we believe there are limits to what can realistically be gained from outsourcing while ensuring consistent standards and accountability. For example, we have numerous excellent friends of parks groups across the city, which add huge value to our green spaces while working with our Cityparks staff. That does not mean they are in a position to, or want to, or it would be desirable for them to take on the overall management of our parks, which would become patchy and inconsistent.
Labour are in danger of presiding over a ‘bleeding stump’ approach, in which they unquestioningly pass on central government cuts, so that vital services are in danger of being lost or severely damaged. There has to be a better approach to delivering local services than this.