We puddle now through the rain to Lewisham Town Hall, where local Labour centrist legend Sir Steve Bullock is due to hold a cabinet meeting on service cuts.
Sir Steve’s cabinet is positioning the ax (with a perverse enthusiasm, some say) over services the council could cut to fund its £3m share of the government’s in-year demand for £1.16bn local government savings.
But that, alas, is not all. Weirdly keen to shine in this first leg of the coalition’s local government service-slaughter challenge, Lewisham council has bullocked ahead and forecast a budget gap of up to £60m for 2011 to 2014 (although it’s still in the dark about government plans for key grants). It has already instructed officers to identify services to push up front for this second phase of the massacre. There’s little evidence the council is fighting for alternatives to keep the poor in this deprived borough afloat – moderate council tax increases in the top bands next year (the council is not compelled to accept Osborne’s incentives to keep increases down) or halts to the capital and PFI programme.
‘It would be easy to declare our opposition to the cuts the coalition is proposing,’ Bullock said in his May AGM address, as he piddled on any notion of combat with the government.
It is easiest of all to embrace the cuts ethos wholeheartedly. Lewisham cuts targets include a mass of jobs in the children and young people’s service, adult social care jobs and care packages, and daycare support for people with learning disabilities. Increased charges are proposed for services like meals on wheels and non-residential care (the complete hitlist is here).
It’s all very Hammersmith and Fulham when you get down to it. H&F Tories partly financed their much-celebrated lowered council tax by charging elderly and disabled people more for services like meals on wheels and homecare – the council ‘sacrificed free home care on the altar of a council tax reduction for which there was no legal requirement,’ Lord Justice Sedley said when three local people sought a judicial review of the Hammersmith charging decision.
The three didn’t win their review, but they drew attention to the truth of Hammersmith’s low council tax. I know that Labour readers will thrash me for comparing one of their councils with H&F’s Tory basketcases, but I’ll do it anyway, and will welcome a proper discussion when everyone calms down. Alternatives to cuts on the Lewishams scale must be found. After all, we’re supposed to be in this together. We’re not if local solutions are about piling costs on the poor.
I digress. Back to Lewisham town hall, where the NUT fronts a healthy-sized rally as the cabinet prepares to meet:
I dip a toe in the rally, where I find that it is indeed Bullock and Lewisham Labour that people want to scrag. The coalition government gets a pass to quite an extent. The PCS is here, as well as the NUT and NASUWT, which means it’s just like the good old days, before the Tories got in – leftwing unions outside a town hall, screaming bloody death at the local Labour in-crowd. I waft round in an odd wave of nostalgia.
I speak to Kathy Duggan, a local primary school teacher, and NASUWT’s Lewisham secretary. She talks about the council’s response to the cuts agenda, and Gove’s plans for schools and academies, as you’ll see. She’s also furious about Mark Elms and his £200,000+ salary – boy, the unions came down hard on that one:
I also speak to Karen Jonason – a soon-to-retire deputy headteacher at Lewisham’s Pendragon school for children with learning disabilities. She’s circulating a petition to keep Crofton Park library open (Sydenham, Blackheath, Crofton Park, Grove Park and New Cross libraries are tagged for closure on Bullock’s list). She’s also a longtime Labour party member. She makes no excuse for this, even though I ask her to. ‘You fight from within.’
She thinks targeting Crofton Park library is ridiculous – ‘it’s always full of people, with kids always on the computers.’ Elderly people are regular library visitors, which Jonason believes saves the council money – ‘there’s a direct relationship between people staying active in the community and being able to live independently and look after themselves.’ The council believes that its libraries proposal would save about £750k – an amount Jonason feels is small beer.
Jonason’s argument is with council priorities – if money must be found, building and refurbishment work should be postponed ahead of cutting ‘small services’ like neighbourhood libraries.
I couldn’t agree more. There’s big money in these parts, but you need to know where to look for it. The council’s dreadful, and dreadfully expensive, PFI contracting process to date would be an excellent place to start – the National Audit Office has just rapped Lewisham’s knuckles for allowing its Brockley Housing project costs to increase from £44.6mâ€‰to an extraordinary £115.91â€‰million. Osborne’s spending review will assess PFIs, and the NAO is keen to hear more about their value:
As part of planned assessment of PFI housing through the 2010 comprehensive spending review and in view of a period of restraint and efficiencies in public sector spending, the department (for communities and local government) should consider PFI in the context of its other housing investment programmes, assess the different types of project used and ensure that value for money is a primary focus in terms of the selection of PFI as an investment option.
That’s where the real money is. Jonason knows, and I know, and we all know that these immediate service-slashing economies are false economies. Bullock’s huge list targets people we (literally) can’t afford to target. Makes you wonder what will happen when we really need to save.
An amusing little update: in another Gillian Duffy moment (time Labour politicians were shown the off-switches on their microphones) Sir Steve calls his concerned constituents fucking idiots. And me paying Lewisham well over £100 a month in council tax, too. How rude.