Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1149/33076
Save our services
Preparing for no-cuts People's Budgets
Socialist Party stall in Liverpool - campaigning for TUSC election candidates, 24.4.21, photo Mark Best (Click to enlarge)
The Socialist Party is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), alongside the RMT transport union and other organisations.
TUSC nationally is promoting the idea of local conferences to draw up no-cuts People's Budgets as part of its campaign against the post-Covid austerity that looms.
Below are extracts from TUSC's campaign material. It can be read in full at tusc.org.uk
What can councils do in the face of government cuts to funding for local public services? Actually, they can do a lot.
Councils in England are responsible for over one-fifth of all public spending, with responsibilities for housing, adult social care, education support, transport, recycling and waste collection, libraries and many other services. The 120 or so Labour-led councils have a combined spending power greater than the individual state budgets of 16 European countries. That's a powerful starting point from which to organise a fightback against relentless Tory austerity.
Covid has revealed both the drastic situation our local public services are in - with councils massively underfunded by central government - but also some of the many things local authorities have the power to do to improve our lives.
In the first lockdown, for example, councils acted against homelessness in their local areas through the 'Everybody In' scheme.
Many councils stepped in during autumn half-term to continue free school meals. But they could go so much further.
Most current councillors, however, including unfortunately the majority of Labour's 7,000 or so local representatives, would say they cannot use their legal authority to act without first getting funding from the government.
But that's the wrong way round. TUSC argues that councils should first spend what's needed - and then demand the money back from the government.
The multiple U-turns made by Johnson and his chancellor during the pandemic, spending billions when public pressure was on them, show that if just a handful of councils used the powers they have to refuse to implement any more cuts and spend what is necessary instead, the Tories could be made to pay up.
A glimpse of what is possible
Early in 2021 the TUSC steering committee published a report examining the policy pledges made in Labour's 2019 general election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, which councils have the legal powers to implement today if they had the political will to do so.
The report identifies 46 separate policies which councils could carry out immediately that would transform peoples' lives. Even just a selection of these policies could form the basis of a People's Budget to present to a local council.
But inviting local trade union branches, campaign groups, community organisations, student groups and others to contribute would undoubtedly come up with more ideas - and lay the basis for a campaign for the local council to implement them now, using their reserves and borrowing powers to temporarily finance them while launching a mass campaign locally and nationally for permanent funding from central government.
Here are some simple policies that any council could implement instantly.
- Build council homes now! By using councils' borrowing powers for capital spending to build council homes, while campaigning for the government to divert its subsidies for private developers to finance a mass programme of public housing
- Use councils' powers to compulsorily register private landlords and set up council-run lettings agencies, as the means to tackle repair standards, high rents, over-occupancy, extortionate letting fees, etc, for private rented homes.
- Restore full council tax benefits, to be funded from council reserves not council tax rises, and campaign for the government to reimburse councils that do so
- Councils could make sure those suffering on the streets were given immediate, decent and comfortable accommodation and support to transform their lives
- Councillors on local fire authorities could enforce tomorrow policies on cladding and fire safety to ensure the safety of local people
- Councils could act immediately on cladding and fire safety - by doing the work and billing the government. They could compulsorily purchase the buildings of private and housing association landlords which do not also act immediately
Jobs, pay and conditions
- Councils could immediately ensure a year-on-year above-inflation pay rise to begin to restore lost pay as Labour promised in 2019. They could ensure that any work undertaken by or for the council is done by workers paid at least £12-15 per hour and could immediately reduce the working week for their workforces with no loss of pay
- Councils could introduce a high-quality apprenticeship scheme with trade union rates of pay, proper training, and a guaranteed job at the end
- They could end the use of zero-hour contracts by the council and by any company undertaking work for them. They could provide facilities and public support for trade unions fighting in their local authority area for such standards in the private sector, and have powers to exclude firms that have participated in blacklisting from tendering for public contracts
- For care workers councils could implement the Unison trade union's ethical care charter to end '15-minute maximum' visiting slots, zero-hour contracts, and unpaid travel time to support workers and make sure those in need get the care they need
Education and children
- Reinstate childcare provision in Sure Start centres where this has been cut, and reopen all the centres closed since 2010
- Bring in free school meals for every school pupil, including during holidays
- Introduce local replacements for the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for all 16-18 year-olds who stay on in education
Health and social care
- Social care in local authorities could be transformed if they adopted and put into place the foundations of the National Care Service, promised by Labour's manifesto, of community-based, person-centred support, underpinned by the principles of ethical care and independent living. With free personal care, beginning with investments to ensure that older people have their personal care needs met, with the ambition to extend this provision to all working-age adults
- Councils could immediately end outsourcing and return all outsourced and privatised services to council control, restoring them to an even better standard of service than before
- All closed libraries, schools and care homes, and other key services and community assets could be reopened, fully funded and updated to meet the needs of local people. And PFI contacts could be scrapped
- Councils could act now to provide the very best support and facilities to help all those less abled be part of society and their community by investing what is necessary in disabled services and support
- Reverse all cuts to domestic violence support services and women's refuges and cuts to street lighting
Councils could reopen closed youth centres and restore lost youth services, starting now to put into place the foundations of a genuine national youth service, as Labour promised
Every council could stop the sell-off of playing fields and sports facilities to developers and private leisure companies, and invest in sports and recreation facilities and services
Empty high street shops, for example, could be taken over and transformed into sports facilities and spaces for all sections of society
- Local authorities have powers to intervene in the provision of bus and transport services, which can be used to ensure they are run in the interests of local people, to boost the use of public transport. They can introduce free bus travel schemes for under-25s now
- Councils could start now a mass home insulation energy efficiency programme. They could restore spending on street and drain cleaning, and bring back standards and governance to ensure quality of work long-term
- They could call in all development projects in order to review environmental impacts - for example, impact on infrastructure, concreting over green space (as well as the quantity and quality of social housing, etc)
- Councils could draw up a detailed local risk assessment and plan to combat flooding risks, taking the necessary action and works needed to protect services and communities both short and long term
- In drawing up local Climate Emergency plans, councils could set targets based on the carbon footprint, not just of council-run services but capturing total emissions for the local area, giving a real picture of what needs to be done to tackle the climate crisis
The myth that it is 'illegal to resist'
The right-wing Labour council leaders sabotaging the call for anti-austerity resistance do not justify themselves in the main by defending the consequences of the cuts, privatisations and other measures that they are implementing.
Instead their 'defence' is to say that there is no alternative, that introducing no-cuts budgets is 'illegal'. They even got a rule change agreed at Labour's 2016 conference that a backbench councillor supporting "any proposal to set an illegal budget" could "face disciplinary action".
Unlike in the US, a council in Britain cannot go bust in the same way as a private company can. A court could appoint a receiver if a council defaulted on its liabilities, but it would not be the equivalent of a private sector bankruptcy in which a company is wound up (and creditors risk losing their money). Because only an act of parliament can dissolve a local authority, council finances are implicitly underpinned by central government.
To maintain some control by central government of council finances, local authorities are legally required to set a 'balanced budget' each year before they can issue council tax bills, set service charges, etc. If a council meeting was to deliberately approve an 'unbalanced budget', the council chief finance officer would serve a Section 114 notice to block council departments from non-statutory expenditure and prevent the issuing of council tax bills.
That is why TUSC does not advocate presenting deliberately 'unbalanced budgets' to council budget-making meetings or using the meetings to not set a budget at all, which would precipitate an immediate legal conflict.
But presenting a no-cuts budget that is formally 'balanced' by the use of prudential borrowing powers and reserves, to buy time to build a mass campaign for government funding while still maintaining the functioning of the council, is a different matter. This is the strategy that has been pioneered by TUSC.
What steps can groups take?
Local TUSC groups should look to meet and lay out plans to host a People's Budget conference before the end of 2021, to draw together the local set of demands and campaign issues to take to the council ahead of their 2022-23 budget-setting meeting, which will take place in January or February 2022.
After deciding on a date for the People's Budget conference, a plan of action should be discussed and drawn up to build for it, by contacting trade union branches, campaign groups, community groups, residents associations and so on to take part - co-hosting if they wish - but certainly inviting them to contribute with their ideas and proposals for what is needed in the local area.
Drawing up a local People's Budget can sound daunting - but it doesn't have to be. Getting across the idea that council budgets should start from what local communities need - not what central government austerity policies demand - can begin with just one local campaign.
And election planning too
People's Budget campaigns can play an important role everywhere in organising a local fightback to the efforts the pro-capitalist politicians will make to pass the costs of the Covid pandemic onto the shoulders of working-class people. But in areas with local council elections next year, they could be central in laying the foundations to pull together the broadest possible anti-austerity electoral challenge - a powerful means of building the pressure on austerity establishment politicians.
But that means election planning too, appealing for candidates early on, getting an election agent (or agents) in place, and so on.
Liverpool socialist council showed the way
From 1983 to 1987 Liverpool City Council was led by supporters of Militant - predecessor to the Socialist Party. When faced with cuts from central government, they refused to pass them on. Instead, with the slogan "better to break the law than break the poor", they made huge advances for working-class people in Liverpool, defeating Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and winning £60 million for the city.
While other councils were implementing cuts, Liverpool council built 5,000 houses and flats - gardens back and front in many cases. It cancelled all cuts and redundancies planned by the outgoing council, built six new nursery schools and five new sports centres, three new parks, and rents were frozen for five years. 2,000 additional jobs were provided for in the Liverpool City Council budget.
This was made possible by mobilising tens of thousands of local people on demonstrations. On three occasions the Joint Local Authority Shop Stewards Committee organised 30,000 council workers in strike action to defend the policies of the council.
- Liverpool: A City that Dared to Fight - The definitive account of the working-class struggle against Thatcher's cuts by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn. £11.99 at Left Books
In The Socialist 29 September 2021:
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Youth and Students