Thursday 15 November 2012

The case for refusing to make 'impossible choices' in Brent budget

This is the speech I made at this evening's Budget and Finance Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Brent Council Leader Muhammed Butt and Deputy, Ruth Moher, attended but were asked only one question. Muhammed Butt confirmed that carers working for the private companies provided adult social care for Brent would not necessarily get the London Living Wage. All other questions on the Budget were addressed to Mick Bowden, Deputy Director of Finance.

I paraphrased towards the end of my speech when my 5  minutes deputation time began to run out.

I start with the assumption that none of the present administration stood for election in order to make cuts that would be to the detriment of the quality of life and the life chances of Brent residents.

I also accept that the Coalition Government’s increasingly discredited approach to austerity is the motor for local authority cuts. I would further argue that this is an ideological attack on local government and local democracy which leaves councils with the job of local implementation of the Coalition agenda.

Under Ann John’s leadership it seemed that the Council was seeing itself in the role of ‘managing’ these cuts with the argument that they could do this without harming services. After the leadership change there has been a slight change of emphasis but there appears to be a contradiction in the stance of Muhammed Butt, the new leader.

In his Priorities statement for the Full Council, Cllr Butt says:
The first priority must remain protecting the integrity of the Budget and making savings.
 But in his blog, he likens the Council’s task to the ‘impossible decisions’ that would have to be made in cutting a third from a household budget.

Again in his press release on the Early Intervention Grant Cllr Butt said that he is dedicated to making sure that no child in the Borough is left behind at a time when' impossible choices' have to be made due to the highly punitive cuts imposed on local authorities by the Coalition.

The issue is clear: maintaining the integrity of the budget and making cuts will mean making ‘impossible choices’ that will inevitably, whatever the council does in mitigation, damage the most vulnerable.

Of course Council officers will stress the legal requirements during the budget process but councillors are not just ‘managers’, they are also politicans and need to adopt a political response both to protect local government as a democratioc entity and to protect local people.

I have likened their position to that of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, despite having his limbs cut off one by one and left (‘Tis but a scratch’ ‘Your arm’s off’ ) as just a bloodied torso, remains defiant and totally unware of the impossibility of his plight. The cruel twist is that the Coalition gives the Council the job of cutting off its own limbs!

The question for this year’s budget making is should the Labour Council continue to make ‘impossible choices’ and continue to cut off its own limbs.

My answer to that quuestion is ‘No’. Doing the ‘impossible’ is also doing the morally unjustifiable.

The impossible is compounded by the constant moving of goalposts by the Coalition, the Council Tax Benefit changes which will not only put more families into poverty and increase the number of defaults, the increased temporary housing costs caused by homelesslessness after the Housing Benefit cap, increased costs for Adult Social care, the permitted (but not encouraged)  increase in Council Tax without a local referendum now established at 2% (3.5% envisaged in forward planning) and anyway such an increase would again hit the poorest in the borough. Only yesterday I heard that in one month 63 children, affected by the housing benefit cap, have moved from a local primary school.

To truly represent local people the Council needs to devise a ‘needs budget’ which reflects the true cost of services that the people of Brent need to maintain their quality of life, consult on this in imaginative ways including going to the community in schools, community centres, places of worship and publicise it, and make sure that people understand who is responsible for the cuts being imposed and the implications of more cuts. Gathering mass support in this way through local action, and working with other councils, especially London ones, for a common approach, could begin a concerted campaign against Coalition policies.

Ken Livingstone, back in the days of the GLC, mounted a fierce challenge against Margaret Thatcher from his County Hal base.  Yes, it didn’t succeed in its immediate aims but did help undermine her in the long-term with an alternative popular agenda.  Brent Council could be in the forefront of such a campaign.


Unknown said...

Great analogy Brent as the Black Night chopping their own limbs off at the government's behest.

Anonymous said...

Shame you can't offer anything more interesting that 'refuse to set a balanced budget' - is this what the Greens in Brighton are doing?

Martin Francis said...

I am a member of Green Left and we have been involved in an ongoing debate with Brighton councillors about what action to take. I don't 'think refusing to make a balanced budget' in isolation will work. As I said there should be a process of producing a needs based budget, perhaps a 'shadow' budget, that is based on what services are required to support people in Brent. This would be done by going out into the community and discussing and debating the issues involved and attempting to get genuine public support for any strategy that is adopted. That means being straight with people about the effects of cuts that would be involved in setting a balanced budget rather than dressing them up as 'savings', 'transformation' etc. At present there appear to be no plans in Brent for such a transparent and accessible involvement of local people. I would advocate such an approach for any council, Labour, Green or whatever, that recognise enough is enough. There would then be a need for those councils to get together to form a united campaign challenging the Coalition's cuts to local authority budgets.