South of the River – Grim choices

Compass-SouthComment logo 2Keith Wakefield, the Leader of Leeds City Council has said they will have to make “grim choices” in setting next year’s budget.

I read the press release with a sinking heart. I’ve mentioned this before but the council has lost £129m from its annual budget since 2010 and is facing a further cut of £74m over the next two years. This year’s cut alone is a massive 14.9% and by 2017 the council’s funding from central government will have been cut by 45% – that’s almost half!

As a friend asked me yesterday, as she explained another reorganisation of the library service, “Why aren’t we rioting in the streets?”

In South Leeds we’ve already lost a sports centre, a couple of libraries, day centres and older peoples homes, not to mention a golf course. There are the more insidious cuts too. The Council doesn’t deliver care to older people at home (home helps, as was) directly any more, but they do pay for it. In order to win the contracts, care companies have to bid below the cost of providing the care properly.

How do they square that particular circle? Either the length of each visit is cut even shorter; or staff don’t get paid for travelling – taking them below the national minimum wage; or occasionally the care company goes out of business. All these things are happening right now.

Poorer areas of the city, like the south, depend on public services. That means we will get hit hardest by the cuts. We have more older people, in worse health, who are dependant on the council for care. We have more people in low paid jobs, such as carers, who depend on Housing Benefit and are hit by the Bedroom Tax. We have more people on zero hours contracts living from hand to mouth.

With a rampant Conservative government (sorry Nick, the Lib-Dems don’t even come into the equation any more) thank goodness we’ve got a Labour council to protect us.

Except they can’t protect us. They try to shield services for the worse off, they try to be clever with shaving a few hours off library opening times here, a golf course there. But they still cut. They will tell you they have to, to challenge the government and set a budget without cuts would see them de-barred and replaced. I’m sure this is true with an apathetic electorate, but if you ran a campaign that got the city behind you the government would have to rethink, especially if every Labour council did it.

That may seem fanciful and until recently I would have tended to agree. But then I saw what happened in Scotland’s independence referendum. A massive turn out to vote, big public meetings, discussion in every family, church, pub and football terrace. Sure there were discussions about oil revenue and border tarrifs, but what got ordinary people excited was getting rid of the bedroom tax, having a fairer tax and benefits system, building council houses.

I might be repeating myself, but the great British public seem to have bought the lie that the ‘deficit’ was caused by too much public spending. No, it was caused by the government bailing out the banking system.

Cartoonist Ralph Underhill suggested on Twitter this week that the term ‘deficit’ should be banned and replaced by ‘bankers overdraft’. Try it for size: “We must cut public services to pay off the bankers overdraft”. Yes, that seems much clearer

So what can we do? Elect a Labour government in May? Milliband and Balls spoke yesterday, promising to make the same Tory cuts but more slowly and carefully. It’s something I suppose, but I would still feel like a turkey voting for Christmas.

UKIP seem pretty radical, ready to tear up the rule book. The trouble is as far as they have policies other than leaving the European Union (don’t get me started) they are for cutting taxes and privatising services. In other words, they are no alternative at all.

To come back to my friend and the question of rioting. I think it’s a question of leadership and we’re not getting it from the Labour Party. I fear for them, I really do. They seem absolutely locked to presenting themselves as Tory-lite, rather than exposing the right and challenging them with radical policies. I really believe if they did that they could win a landslide next May.

Or we could start building barricades …

I’ll be back in next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.