Lobbying Warrington council's budget setting meeting,

Lobbying Warrington council’s budget setting meeting,   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Warrington Labour rush to cut, with Tory support

Hugh Caffrey

Despite local people lobbying them, viable alternatives to cuts produced, and a request to delay for a week to think again, Warrington’s Labour councillors rushed to agree to make £20 million of cuts, with the support of the local Tories.

This budget means devastating cuts. The YMCA could close for want of £38,000 that is being cut, barely more than the £34,000 the Labour councillors voted to award themselves in extra allowances.

Sandy Lane Sure Start is under threat and parents from there joined YMCA supporters, Warrington trades council and Warrington TUSC supporters to lobby the council.

No cuts need to be made this year in Warrington, the council has the money not to make cuts, as alternative budget proposals from TUSC councillor Kevin Bennett prove.

Kevin Bennett speaking, TUSC conference, 24.1.15, photo Neil Cafferky

Kevin Bennett speaking at TUSC conference, 24.1.15, photo Neil Cafferky   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The council’s chief finance officer has confirmed these proposals are legal. Kevin moved an amendment to defer setting the budget for a week to give time to discuss these and any other no-cuts proposals. “We don’t need to rush into cuts”, Kevin explained, “I’m arguing for us to take emergency measures to buy time to put pressure on the government for additional funding.”

Labour councillors in response shrieked all the usual invented excuses. Given a genuine choice to examine serious costed alternatives to making cuts, they instead led the charge to vote to push ahead with making cuts, backed up by Tories and all bar one Lib-Dems.

Amendments from the Lib-Dems and Tories to reprieve the YMCA and three other specific cuts out of the 158 proposed by Labour, were also voted down by Labour, as “strange”.

Kevin said afterwards: “[Labour cabinet member] Councillor Bowden also attacked me for ‘repeatedly’ pushing to use the reserves. Next year’s budget will be even harder to deliver and that is why we need to pressure the government to provide extra funding. We cannot carry on ‘cutting’ at the expense of our most vulnerable. In the words of councillor Bowden, ‘we need to support the most vulnerable’, but actions speak louder than words. Delaying the budget decision by one week wouldn’t have cause that much of a problem, and we could have discussed the budget that I had outlined. “

Speaking against Labour’s cuts budget, Kevin Bennett castigated Labour:

“I have tried to put forward an alternative tonight, but as usual the autocratic nature of this administration wouldn’t allow it. And who suffers? The young, the homeless and the most vulnerable in our town.” [See below for Kevin’s speech in the council chamber]

Council leader O’Neill responded with a diatribe of incoherent personal abuse at Kevin. Thereafter followed the ritual blaming of the Tories and admissions of worse to come in the future, and then Labour voted through their cuts budget with all the Tory councillors gladly voting with them.

Summing up the meeting, Kevin said:

“I focused on this year’s budget shortfall of £20.5 million and put together an emergency budget to stop cuts this year. Councils have the legal and financial powers to delay cuts by drawing on reserves, using borrowing powers, and working with tenants and trade unions to avoid evictions and privatisation. This can all be done within the law and cannot be overruled by central government

“… But later in the meeting, councillor Terry O’Neill launched into a personal, abusive attack on my character. It appears that instead of attacking the Tories, his argument seems to be with TUSC. Labour councillors and members personally told me that they were ‘disgusted’ by the actions of councillor O’Neill.”

The only serious opposition to the Tory-Labour cuts on Warrington council is coming from councillor Kevin Bennett and TUSC. We will be supporting further campaigns to save vital services in the town and fighting hard to get councillor Bennett re-elected in May.

Councillor Kevin Bennett’s speech in the council meeting

Councillor Bowden seems to have resigned himself to having to rely on becoming self-sufficient and he seems to have forgotten that when we have Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister we will receive more funding.

So members, why are we rushing to make these cuts?

This is a Budget for Business, not a Budget for the people!

I have put together a No-Cuts People’s Budget, with no ‘vanity projects’.

It seems to me that the Labour leadership is trying to build a ‘legacy’ on the backs of the most vulnerable in our town. The leader is ‘hell bent’ on Warrington becoming a City before he can look after the needs of the town.

That’s not what his leader, Jeremy Corbyn stands for and that’s not why the Labour Party was formed. It’s about time the true socialists in this chamber, other than myself, stood up to him.

We need to defer this budget for another week to discuss what I am proposing in my alternative no-cuts budget. This will give us enough time to have a proper consultation with all members and consider these alternatives.

You have all been deceived on many occasions, by councillor Bowden and councillor O’Neill, telling us that a no-cuts budget was illegal. All of my proposals are legal. The levels of the reserves remain static every year, it’s just another pot of money.

I have tried to put forward an alternative tonight, but as usual the autocratic nature of this administration wouldn’t allow it. And who suffers? The young, the homeless and the most vulnerable in our town. This budget cuts the funding from the YMCA, £38,000, yet adds £34,000 extra funding to members’ costs.

How can you sleep at night in your nice warm beds, knowing that in June the YMCA could close down after 160 years in this town, putting homeless people back onto the streets? You should be ashamed of yourselves.

This Labour administration wants to close down the Sandy Lane Sure Start in Orford, a community that desperately needs this facility. Some of the mums were outside tonight. Did their councillors stand outside with them? No. The mums came to me to ask if there was anything I could do. But again parts of the leadership are trying to build a legacy with the Orford Jubilee Hub.

The Labour administration even tried to attack our youth workers’ terms and conditions, but under pressure they have now backed down and came to a sensible agreement with them.

Did any the Labour councillors come outside tonight and stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of this town who are fighting for survival? No, you kept your heads down and walked past or drove past or went in the back way. Why? Are you ashamed of the decisions you make?

At the last council meeting I was outside lobbying with the youth workers and when I tried to talk to the mayor he told me to ‘f off’. Is this how the members in this chamber should behave?

Members, please defer this budget just for a week, take a look at my alternative budget and let’s come back next week and pass a no-cuts legal budget.

I am proposing emergency measures to buy time to put pressure on the government to increase our funding. Don’t forget that the government have put a further £300 million into the pot, most of it went to the Tory shires in the South of England. The North of England should have the same.

You don’t have to ‘sheepishly’ pass Tory budgets any more. Saying ‘there’s nothing else we can do’ is not an option – I have got something else you can do and it’s legal, so why rush to cut? If we don’t fight back now it will be too late.

At the last Executive meeting, where they passed this budget, they all agreed that ‘difficult choices have to be made’. Councillor Bowden said: ‘we must protect our most vulnerable’, so let’s do just that, let’s make that difficult choice and say no to this budget and make a no-cuts budget. Let Warrington lead the way and defer this budget, have a look at what I’m proposing and come back next week after a real discussion with members, officers and the unions and then pass a ‘people’s budget’ with no cuts this year and start working on a no-cuts budget for next year immediately.

The members in this chamber have the power to change things. We need to remember that we were voted in to represent the people of this town, not to manage the council, we have the officers to do that on our behalf. We need to challenge the officers’ decisions when we think it is hurting the people we represent. The officers I have met with don’t mind being challenged and I know they do their job following the government’s instructions, but we have to make political choices and this government chose ‘austerity’. We don’t have to!

So vote to defer this budget, don’t rush into giving up our vital services without a fight.

The businessmen and bankers have had their time and we are still paying for it, well I say ‘no more’.

Don’t pass this budget tonight, defer your decision until next week after you have had the time to look at what I am proposing, for the sake of the young, the homeless, the most vulnerable in our town and for the sake of your own integrity.

Don’t rush to make cuts. Please support a deferral tonight.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 1 March 2016 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.