Woking anti-austerity protest, Dec 2018, credit: Helen Couchman (uploaded 18/12/2018)
Woking anti-austerity protest, Dec 2018, credit: Helen Couchman (uploaded 18/12/2018)

Dan Warrington, Staines Socialist Party

In the wake of the ‘section 114’ notice declared by Woking council last year, many so-called ‘discretionary’ services are at risk of being cut or defunded, including Citizen’s Advice, community centres, parks and playgrounds, public toilets, leisure and cultural facilities, and subsidised meals and transport for vulnerable residents. One of the proposals from Woking council to ‘save’ these services has been the adoption of a Community Asset Transfer (CAT) policy. Under such a scheme, services currently owned and run by the council will be leased out to charities and community organisations that can demonstrate a viable business plan. 

The council is presenting CATs as “the first step in ensuring the doors to our valuable community spaces remain open and can continue to serve residents” whilst it will also “allow the council to make essential budget savings and focus its resources into financing core services.” After months of threats that services will have to be closed, some local residents may be inclined to support the policy as a way to preserve their local services. 

However, the transfer of services out of public ownership and control is not sustainable and represents a continuation of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ austerity politics. Services will face the huge challenge of securing long-term funding whilst being obliged to maintain service levels. The likely results will be that these services will become more expensive for users and without democratic oversight. Workers within these services will be at risk from worsened pay and conditions, or being replaced outright by volunteer labour. The most deprived parts of the community will be the least able to fund the services that they rely on. Rather than preserving local services, CATs throws their long-term future into considerable doubt.

The deliberate throttling of funding for local government by the Tories over the past 14 years has wreaked devastation to local services across the country. But if councillors across the country organised together and refused to implement further cuts, the government would be forced to listen, just as public sector strike action forced them to improve pay offers last year.

Save Our Services in Surrey called on councillors, while lobbying their meeting, to vote against the austerity budget and to campaign for increased funding from national government. Instead of being complicit in the carving up of the towns public services, Woking councillors would do well to focus their efforts on a concerted campaign for proper funds alongside other councils around the country.