Sunday 8 January 2012

'Oh Lucky Jim, I don't envy him' - more cuts ahead

In the old days of the Soviet Union there were a select group of journalists called  Kremlinologists whose job it was to analyse Soviet journals, party statements and even the order in which the Kremlin leadership stood at military parades in order to understand the subtle power shifts and policy differences within the apparently monolithic leadership.

I feel sometimes that I am performing a similar role regarding the Brent Council Labour leadership. Ann John, although not a Stalin, does rule extremely firmly, can be fierce to colleagues as well as enemies and takes few prisoners: a cross between the Iron Lady herself and Ann Robinson in her Weakest Link role. Cllr James Powney plays the part of a humourless and insensitive apparatchik convincingly. Neither can be said to have been a great PR success.

On this blog and in the press I have argued that Labour does itself no favours by claiming that the cuts are terrible but they are managing to make them without hurting anyone. That line appears to be shifting and the 'revisionist' Executive member who is leading on this is Cllr Jim Moher. Representing 'Brent Council with a human face' he has been prepared to engage, appearing on the platform at the Brent People's Assembly to debate the Council's cuts and being ready to admit in the Council chamber that there are some streets that are suffering as the result of the street sweeping cuts. His letter on libraries and Sarah Teather in the Brent and Kilburn Times this week is in sharp contrast to the comments about library campaigners that James Powney makes on his blog LINK (can you imagine him being called Jim or even Jimmy?).

Moher says: '... I accept that a lot of people have been upset by this particular cut' but qualifies this by going on to say, '(less so it seems, about the other £41m [cuts] to our services imposed  by Mrs Teather's government)'. Later he states, 'If however, the campaigners get leave to appeal and the Supreme Court overturn those other judgements, the council will have to change the decisions. That is our system of democracy. ' He says he understands why campaigners would want to appeal to the government 'to overturn an unpopular local council decision' but asks the legitimate question whether 'a cabal of ministers can interfere in decisions lawfully and democratically taken, when they are mainly responsible for the expenditure cuts which required the decision?'

My answer to his question would be 'Yes, if the cuts mean that the council is not meeting the requirement of national legislation to provide an adequate library service.'

Moher's change of tone, if it represents internal shifts of emphasis, or even power, within the Labour administration, does lead on to other questions. If the cuts in Brent's budget are so large (and they are enormous) does it mean that the Council is faced with an impossible task to maintain services at an adequate level? One example is that the number of park wardens has been cut from 17 to 5, with only 3 on duty at weekends. The number of park vehicles has been cut in line with staff reductions. Is it possible to lock and unlock parks and cemeteries, provide security, enforce the new Dog Orders, and deal with emergencies with that number of staff. What will be the impact on parks in terms of fly-tipping, anti-social behaviour, rough sleeping and public use if people no longer feel safe? Across the council fewer staff are doing more work and morale is often poor.

If it is an impossible task, what should the Council do about it? Well before the ACF budget presentations they have already ruled out an increase in Council Tax, so that option which would be unpopular but might save some services has gone. They have rejected not setting a budget on the grounds that cuts made by the Chief Executive Gareth Daniel and his team would be worse - although senior officers and the Labour leadership are so much in cahoots there probably wouldn't be any difference. That leaves the option of working with local people on a 'needs led' budget, working out exactly what would need to be spent to ensure quality local services, and campaigning with local residents and organisations for that budget - uniting with other Councils to take on the Coalition government.

Putting to one side the issue of whether the Council could have made different cuts and the particular issue of the new Civic Centre, which now looks rather redundant if the Council shrinks as much as forecast, Labour is faced with the problem that they are getting kicked in the teeth by the public because they are doing the Coalition's dirty work for them.

Cuts get passed down the line and this Spring we are going to see them arrive in the laps of school governing bodies. The Lib Dem PR machine has been busy suggesting that Sarah Teather is giving extra money to Brent schools via the Pupil Premium. It is true that the amount across the country has been increased and that entitlement has been widened, but the problem is that other parts of the education budget have been cut and ring-fencing removed. Brent will be particularly affected because two more secondary schools became academies last year, and there is a possibility that more will go before the financial year end. This will top-slice the education budget. Cuts will hit special educational needs funding, the music service, arts projects and other projects which add the real 'buzz' and creativity to pupils' learning,

Governors will be in a similar position to councillors: under pressure to make cuts to balance the budget but recognising that the cuts will damage the quality of children's education. In addition the staffing cuts will fall on teaching assistants and other support staff, the number of which expanded under the Labour government. They have been trained in special 'intervention projects' for group and 1 to 1 teaching of children who have fallen behind and have done much to raise standards in Brent schools, which are now above the national average in many areas despite the disadvantaged nature of much of the population.

These staff are paid low wages on a term-time only basis, often on short-term or agency contracts,and are mainly women, working class and members of an ethnic minority. They contribute enormously to schools as positive role models from the local community.

Tough times and decisions are ahead.

The range of education services provided by the Brent School Improvement Service and an account of their impact on raising standards can be seen HERE

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