England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Councils at breaking point: Defend jobs and services!

A UNISON member and local government worker

 In March, BBC Panorama aired a film, titled Paying More For Less: Councils in Crisis, which laid bare the catastrophic funding crisis that local government is facing and, most importantly, the collapsing services that millions of people rely on. The film centred on Havering Council, which announced last September that it might have to declare bankruptcy. Having been bailed out by a £54m government loan, bankruptcy has been averted, but this will only kick the can down the road and plans to cut vital services are already being made, including school transport for more than 400 disabled students and those with special education needs.

Devastating impact of cuts

Those who work in local government and those who rely on council services will know all too well the devastating impact that a decade and a half of austerity has had. Recent analysis by the Guardian newspaper found that, between 2010-11 and 2022-23, net spending per person on cultural services across the country was cut by 43% in real terms, on roads and transport spending by 40%, on housing by 35%, and on planning and development by a third. The so-called ‘support package’ of £600m, announced by the government late last year, will do nothing to address this, particularly as any money that does make its way to councils will be a one-off.

Despite the eye-watering levels of cuts that have been forced through since 2010, there has not been a coordinated movement against them. Protests and strikes against attacks on services, whilst successful in many areas, have been localised and isolated on a council-by-council basis.

This reflects the general mood among local government workers like myself. Despite the fact that we are continuing to deliver local services, in ever more pressurised workplaces and with ever greater workloads, there is a sense of grim resignation amongst some colleagues. To an extent, this is because the swingeing cuts of the last 13 years have not resulted in mass compulsory redundancies. Councils have managed to do this because of their ageing workforces and offering voluntary redundancy and early retirement packages to workers.

Strike wave

This mood can change, however, in the context of the strike wave that recently saw millions of workers take strike action over pay and in defence of jobs and services. Whilst last year’s strike ballot of UNISON members over the pay offer failed to meet the 50% threshold, the vast majority voted for action on an increased turnout compared to 2021. This shows that there is a kernel of real anger amongst a significant number of local government workers.

Similarly, with a wave of council bankruptcies on the horizon, the coming period has the potential to be characterised by a more generalised and national anti-cuts movement. In December last year, Nottingham Council became the latest to issue a Section 114 Notice, which is issued when a council knows it will have a budget shortfall and won’t be able to balance the books in order to fund services. In the aftermath, the Local Government Information Unit said that, “we know that around one in ten councils are at risk of effective bankruptcy”, and that “Nottingham isn’t the first to issue a Section 114 and certainly won’t be the last. More and more well-run and effective councils are saying that they could be next.”

Birmingham

At the same time, the Local Government Association (LGA) made this statement about the impact of future austerity on councils: “They’ve done the restructures. They’ve done the asset sales, they’ve done the staff reduction, they’ve done the service redesign and they’ve done the transformation. They’ve used the reserves already. Once those things are gone, they’re gone. There is a wave of councils that will effectively return the town hall keys back to the government because there is just no way out of this.”

Probably the most extreme example of this new wave of crises and bankruptcies is Birmingham City Council, which has announced £300m of cuts over the next two years. This will take a sledgehammer to services, result in 600 job losses and signal a Council Tax hike of 21%. Some of the reasons for Birmingham’s dire situation are unique, such as the completely botched installation of an Oracle IT system that was budgeted to cost £40m but ended up costing more than three times as much.

In addition, the council has £700m liabilities relating to equal pay claims. Scandalously, the council has blamed these liabilities for the current crisis, effectively blaming the cost of long-overdue compensation of historically underpaid women workers for the cuts and service closures that they are about to make. We completely reject this narrative. The crisis in local government is as a direct result of austerity and the failure of capitalism to provide the services, jobs, housing and pay that we all need.

Campaigns to defend services

In the current absence of a national movement against the cuts, it seems clear that there will be numerous localised campaigns and struggles as much-loved and valued services are attacked and threatened with closure. One example is the recent successful campaign to stop the closure of two specialist dementia care units in Kirklees, where Socialist Alternative supporters played a key role. In Coventry, threatened cuts to the Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (CRASAC) has provoked big protests of service users, community campaigners and trade unionists.

However, as in Kirklees and Coventry, the vast majority of campaigns and disputes will be in towns and cities where Labour councillors are making cuts; just as Labour have dutifully delivered cuts to jobs and services since 2010. Despite this, the desperation that many working class people feel to get rid of the Tories will mean that more explosive struggles are postponed until after the general election. But we should be clear that Starmer’s Labour Party is no real alternative for workers and the oppressed suffering at the sharp end of capitalism and austerity.

A Starmer-led government will see a continuation of Tory austerity and the under-funding of councils. Meanwhile, Labour councils will continue to make cuts and attack services.

As we have seen since 2010, whilst localised strikes and campaigns can be successful and incredibly inspiring, they aren’t enough to deal with the crisis that is facing local government nationally. That’s why we call for the linking-up of anti-cuts groups and activists with the unions in local government to come together to fight back against austerity and cuts, and also to demand proper funding for councils. Funding that not just stops the next round of cuts, but that restores services that have been decimated over recent years by Tory austerity. Left activists in the unions, particularly UNISON, must take this on and seek to build a mass movement against cuts and for the restoration of our vital council services.

What we fight for

  • Reversal of all cuts. Restore all local government funding.
  • Bring all privatised services back in house, run democratically.
  • A mass campaign involving unions, communities for the funds our services need, both from the Tories and a future Labour government
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