Mural to celebrate the Poplar rate rebels who used the powers of local government to stand up to a Conservative and Liberal coalition government in the aftermath of the First World War
Guest blog by William Quick, a Green Party member in Bristol. This posting was orginally published on his blog A Green Trade Unionist - In Bristol
I’ve just been selected by the Bristol Green Party to be their candidate for Bedminster in next May’s Council elections. I’m really excited and want to thank all our local members who voted for me; we came second to Labour in Bedminster by only 3% this year and we have a really good chance of getting atleast one of the two seat in the ward. I intend to do a longer post on my priorities for the ward, but for now I thought I’d dwell on something that came up in the hustings, my opposition to any and all cuts budgets and the need for a ‘needs budget’.
As you should know the Green Party completely opposes Austerity as a failed economic model, that has held back the economy, and punished the poor and most vulnerable in our society whilst forcing ordinary people to pay for the bailout of the banks.
Nationally our MP has been fantastic in continually voting against cuts and austerity and has one of the best voting records of any Left wing MP.
However, on the local level, the limited options available to resist the imposition of cuts has seen Green Councillors – most famously in Green controlled Brighton – adopt a ‘dented shield’ approach to try and minimise the worst excesses of local cuts and vote for cuts budgets (so they can amend and tinker with them).
The amount of money in the budget is imposed on local authorities by central government and its austerity agenda. To set a legal budget within those confines means passing on cuts.
The alternative is setting a ‘needs budget’. Disregarding the limit set by Whitehall this would set a budget adequate to cover provision for all the services local people need (hence a ‘needs budget’). Such actions have been made illegal under section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 which then obligates the councils financial officer to alert Whitehall as to what’s happened. After that the council would have 21 days to set a legal budget or supposedly civil servants from central government would depose the council and set a cuts budget themselves.
That being the case many feel they have no option but to pass cuts budgets that have minimised the threat to vital services as much as possible.
However, to me, and many others, this seems a very improbable course of events. This is a government with a wafer thin majority, and deposing the democratically elected council of one of the largest cities in the UK would be a deeply unpopular move. The drama would dominate the news and could be a spark that ignites the disparate movements we’ve seen trying to resist austerity these last 5 years.
Should it even get so far as civil servants being sent into the city, they would be met with large scale protests and no doubt a strike from local government workers who would then refuse to help them carry out their dirty work (and many civil servants are PCS members who would be unlikely to cross a picket). With all that going on, the likelihood of the worst case scenario (the deposition of the council) happening seems very low.
Instead they’d no doubt try and reach a compromise, in which we’d be able to win a better deal for Bristol.
One way this might work has already been laid out by our Mayoral candidate Tony Dyer. The Conservatives have said councils can keep their business rates (probably from 2020). Tony has challenged the government to give Bristol its business rates from 2016, which would allow us to reverse the cuts and invest in the many many infrastructural projects Bristol urgently needs (chiefly social and affordable housing). If we set a needs budget and demanded we be given our business rates early to pay for it, it seems likely central government would, to some extent, give in.
It’s not as far fetched as some might have you believe. Remember despite the apparent dire state of the nations finances, in the last budget the Conservatives magicked up £12 billion in extra defence spending (the exact same amount they’re cutting from welfare, coincidently), and another £10 million for a private jet for the PM (among many other things). Last year they found money for an 11% pay rise for every MP, and £15 billion for Osborne’s ‘Road Revolution’. In short, they’re very good at finding extra money when they need it. And in the kind of constitutional crisis they’d provoke by trying to depose Bristol Council, they’d no doubt decided they’d need the money.
Furthermore, councils have already had their budgets cut by so much that there simply isn’t that much more they can cut before statutory services start to fail. The so called ‘low hanging fruits’ of council expenditure have already been picked. If councils continue to live within the dictates of the law and refuse to try and set ‘needs budgets’, at some point in the next 5 years we’re going to see a significant failure of the basic services many people depend on.
The main argument against ‘needs budgets’ is that civil servants aren’t going to know our communities needs and their cuts will be far worse than the more compassionate cuts our Council will do itself.
As I’ve said this seems unlikely, and if it got to the point where implementing cuts will result in the failure of services how can civil servant driven cuts be any worse? Also it would focus the blame for these cuts squarely back where it belongs with central government, and would make the Tories do their dirty work themselves.
We’ve already seen massive mobilisations against the government and its austerity program since the election. If unelected civil servants started deposing local authorities to implicate savage cuts; the protests, strikes and civil disobedience it would cause would be a significant challenge to the government.
If several councils refused to set cuts budgets at the same time, their likelihood of success would be even higher. The blowback from them attempting to depose multiple authorities at once could likely bring down the government (so they’d probably give in). For that to happen we need people elected onto those councils making those arguments and willing to make a stand against austerity.
If elected I will be one of those people. I pledge to never vote for a budget containing cuts, and to consistently make the case for the alternative whenever possible.