Britain: Building ‘People’s Budgets’ – An alternative to Tory and Labour cuts

Campaigning against council cuts in Leeds

As local authorities begin discussing their spending plans for 2022-2023, which they will finally agree on at budget-setting meetings in February or March, we can already see the scale of cuts that are being prepared. Labour-led Manchester City Council is talking about an £85 million budget shortfall within the next three years. Liverpool City Council is planning £19 million of cuts next year, including 6% of its current spending on adult social care.

There are 125 councils that can be considered ‘Labour-led’ in Britain – 103 councils in England and ten in Wales. In advance of the 2022-23 budget-setting meetings, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), an electoral coalition including the Socialist Party, the transport union RMT, Resist and others, has compiled statistical profiles of the budgets and reserves held by these councils (see ‘How much reserves have they got?’ tusc.org.uk).

These councils together control budgets of at least £82 billion. This gives Labour-led councils a combined spending power greater than the gross domestic product of nine EU countries and the state budgets of sixteen!

At the same time, these councils together hold around £15.32 billion in General Fund reserves, £2.07 billion in Housing Revenue Account reserves, and £2.59 billion useable capital receipts reserves. Councils also have the ability to borrow much more, financed by reserves in the short term.

In towns and cities around the country, TUSC is initiating People’s Budget meetings bringing together trade unions, activists and community organisations to draw up an outline for council budgets based on the needs of local communities.

A council prepared to introduce such a budget, which draws upon councils’ reserves and borrowing powers, would win popular support. With the support of the trade unions, a campaign could be mobilised to win back funding from the central government.


Birmingham People’s Budget

Joe Foster, Birmingham North Socialist Party

Birmingham TUSC hosted an initial forum to discuss the pressing issues facing working-class communities in Birmingham on 27 November. The meeting looked at what steps could be taken by Birmingham City Council, and how to campaign for the necessary funding from the central government to carry them out.

In attendance were members of ten trade union branches, including RMT, Unite, ASLEF, CWU and UCU, the chair of the Birmingham branch of Acorn tenants’ union and the local coordinators of TUSC and the Workers Party of Britain. Save Our Schools West Midlands also sent a written submission.

The meeting heard how over £770 million has been cut from services by Birmingham City Council since 2010, which, along with outsourcing and schools being transferred to academies, has resulted in the council workforce shrinking from over 50,000 twelve years ago to less than 12,000 today.

Despite this, the council still controls a total budget of over £3.3 billion and useable reserves of over £1 billion.

TUSC believes that these reserves and the council’s borrowing powers could be used to implement a People’s Budget based on properly resourced public services and an accelerated council house building programme while mounting a campaign to win the necessary funds on a permanent basis from the central government.

Throughout the discussion, those in attendance raised what measures they thought could be taken by the council to improve people’s lives.

Housing

The lack of available, affordable and suitable housing is the most pressing issue facing working-class people in Birmingham today. There is an urgent need for more council-owned homes available at genuinely affordable rents to tackle the waiting list of over 18,000 households and the tens of thousands more who have been excluded from even joining the waiting list.

As well as being a problem in its own right, poor housing creates an additional burden on the NHS and social care by aggravating health problems and is less environmentally friendly.

By Birmingham City Council’s own estimate there are currently brownfield sites available for 45,000 new homes in Birmingham. The council should use its powers to compulsory purchase this land to build the next generation of environmentally sustainable council homes on these sites.

In addition, the council could use its powers to set up a compulsory register of private landlords and refuse to recognise those letting out substandard housing or with a history of rent hikes and unfair evictions.

Schools

Save Our Schools highlighted the need to bring schools that have been transferred away to academy trusts back under local authority control. This could be linked to a programme of enriching the curriculum across schools to engage pupils and ignite the imagination of children who find the rigid and restricted nature of exam-focused lessons so hard to manage.

Support for pupils with special educational needs (SEND) is particularly lacking. Additional training for early intervention in schools, youth centres, playgroups and activity clubs which include children with SEND, are desperately needed.

The closure of all 14 council-run nurseries in 2019 has affected the poorest communities the most. These should be reopened to provide free, good quality pre-school education for all children.

For older children, a People’s Budget could restore funding to the 43 council-run youth clubs and local projects which have been closed. A reintroduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-18 year-olds could offer young people a positive future away from crime and anti-social behaviour.

Council workers’ pay

Local authority workers in Unison, GMB and Unite are all preparing for potential strike action against the government’s below-inflation 1.75% pay offer.

The current lowest pay band at Birmingham City Council is equivalent to £9.50 an hour, barely more than the minimum wage for over-25 year-olds. The council should implement a real living wage of £15 an hour. Existing equal pay disputes at the council must be resolved by levelling up wages and conditions. There must be no repeat of the ‘fire-and-rehire’ tactics used against grade-three refuse collectors in 2017, which led to strike action and ultimately a victory for the Unite-organised workers.

Domestic violence services

Support for Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid to provide services for those fleeing domestic violence has previously been cut by £500,000. However, this year the organisation received an emergency grant of £3.2 million from the central government. This funding and more should be made permanent to maintain and extend services.

Climate change

Birmingham City Council has the powers to intervene in the running of privatised bus services and stop the axing of routes between suburbs. It is possible for the council to introduce free travel, including for under-25s and jobseekers.

To encourage the rollout of electric cars, especially in terraced streets where people don’t have private driveways, the council could fund a network of public vehicle charging points.

TUSC is planning further meetings to develop these demands ahead of the council’s budget-setting meeting in February.


Southampton People’s Budget

Catherine Clarke, Southampton Socialist Party

Southampton TUSC hosted a People’s Budget meeting on 13 November. The meeting invited representatives from the trade unions, Labour councillors, councillors from Alton in Hampshire who have resigned from Labour, the Breakthrough Party, the Workers’ Party and other community organisations.

Solidarity messages were received from the chair of Hampshire Fire Brigades Union, the Bakers’ union (BFAWU) and RMT transport union presidential candidate Sean Hoyle.

Introducing the discussion, Nick Chaffey, secretary of Socialist Party Southern and South East region, explained that the Tory austerity programme, implemented by Southampton’s Labour council over the past ten years, has seen a cut of £160 million each year for the city, a cumulative withdrawal of £1 billion. The consequence: a loss of Labour’s support and ultimately its leadership of the council to the Tories in May this year.

In 2013 two Labour councillors, Keith Morrell and Don Thomas were forced out of the Labour group for opposing cuts, including the closure of the Lordshill swimming pool in their ward. With the support of TUSC and the Socialist Party, they proceeded to move an alternative no-cuts budget proposal using reserves and borrowing. The Labour mayor refused to allow the proposal to be discussed and voted on.

Unsurprisingly, the councillors’ fight was popular, and both Keith and Don were re-elected, standing against Labour. Under pressure, the Labour council miraculously found £1.5 million to keep the pool open. This shows how effective campaigns can save services, and fighting the cuts is hugely popular!

There are approximately 10,000 people on the council housing waiting list in Southampton it was suggested in the meeting that the council is refusing to let any more people join. A People’s Budget should oppose any increases in council rent or service charges. A willing council could also use its powers to implement rent control in the private sector. One contribution outlined how many of the council houses on the ‘Flowers Estate’ in Southampton have been sold off. Those in council accommodation pay £400 per month, while a privately rented house next door pays £1,500 per month.

Council housing

A People’s Budget should include building council housing as well as retrofitting compulsory bought empty homes. Such a programme carried out in-house and with input from the trade unions, should employ thousands of workers on £15 an hour or more, as well as create well-paid apprenticeships. Environmentally friendly technologies and building techniques could be applied throughout.

Declan Clune, Secretary of Southampton Trades Union Council, works in homelessness services in Southampton. The homelessness department of the council is avoiding referring people for shelter in overstretched underfunded hostels. When council workers are sent out to count the homeless, individuals are not included in the statistics if their bedding is in a doorway, but not currently being slept on. If the homeless individual has a tent, they are considered as having shelter. As well as building more homes, a People’s Budget should include expanding the support services available to those made homeless.

Adult social care provided through the council is driven by targets dictated by cost-saving and disregarding the needs of people. The support packages provided for those who need residential care have been drastically cut. The council used to employ 30 members of staff to support those needing social care. They now employ just seven full-time staff.

Bus services in Southampton, run privately for profit, are unreliable and expensive. Many workers, unable to be sure of getting to work on time, are forced to drive. Bus companies have received vast public subsidies during the pandemic. They were operating as normal when no one was using them, making huge profits.

Bus drivers are leaving their jobs in droves. In the past, drivers were allowed a break every four hours, now this has increased to five. With drivers leaving, companies are now offering pay rises of 6.7% to attract people into the industry, proof that they do have the money to pay higher wages!

A people’s budget should include bringing bus services back into public ownership. Until as recently as 15 years ago in Southampton, there were a number of free bus services in the city centre. In Luxembourg, a free bus service has resulted in a 74% decrease in car usage. Free, publicly-owned transport in Southampton could help transform the city’s dangerous air quality.

The meeting in Southampton was a starting point towards developing a needs budget for the city. The discussion will continue on 22 January. Proposals will be developed further ahead of the council budget-setting meeting on 23 February.

New workers’ party

It is vital that trade unions and socialists begin to seriously organise politically to fight for our interests. It is positive that the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU) has now disaffiliated from Labour. The Communications Workers Union (CWU) conference voted to suspend donations to the national Labour Party beyond its affiliation fees. Unite the Union has reduced its donations to Labour by 10% and general secretary Sharon Graham has pledged to “adopt a policy calling on Labour councils to set legal balanced no-cuts needs-based budgets”.

We must present a bold programme as a clear alternative to working-class people, and prepare to stand candidates in the council elections to get our message out there. Candidates prepared to fight the cuts in the council chamber, stand with us as part of TUSC next May!

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