The Council estimate that it will have to make £52m worth of cuts by 2021/22 (see here para 1.4) The challenge is immense. We must be honest with our residents about this. It is hard to envisage that there will be a single council funded leisure centre, library or children's centre left in the borough at the end of the process. This should come as no surprise. The Local Government Association warned some years ago that if the Government's declared Austerity plan for local government was implemented in full, then Councils up and down the country would have no money to fund any other services beyond Adult and Children's Social Care and emptying the bins.
This is the reality that will confront any new Lewisham Mayor on the first day after they are elected. I challenge all those who want to be Lewisham's next Mayor to say what they plan to do about it and how any policy pledge they make will impact on the cuts target.
I have a 3 point plan that, if selected, I will begin to implement on the day after my selection. There will be no time to waste. We shouldn't wait until next May to start to do what needs to be done.
First, I will warn people of what is to come. I've been a member of Lewisham's Cabinet for over 7 years. I spent the first 4 of these leading on the budget process for the Mayor as his Cabinet Member for Resources. During this period I had to go to meetings to introduce Council budget reports that contained Government Austerity cuts that had been imposed on us. These were often extremely rowdy affairs, one of which involved the storming of the Civic Suite by protesters who let off fire extinguishers and tried to gain access to Council offices. Order had to be restored by police with extended batons. It was an experience I will not forget. More recently, as Cabinet Member for Children & Young People, I have become the focus of protests against cuts to Forest Hill School where many people seem to blame the Council for cuts that they readily admit to believing are due to Tory Government cuts.
Over this period I have been continually perplexed by the fact that people we would expect to support a Labour Council during these difficult times, Labour Party members, Trade Unionists and left leaning people, have instead attacked us. We have been subjected to arguments that I can only describe as coming straight out of the Eric Pickles' play book and Tory Central Office press releases. I will not go into more detail here. Suffice to say that many of my Labour colleagues have found the last few years disappointing.
The Tory's Austerity Strategy has been simple:
- Make a show of supposedly 'ring-fencing' the NHS and Education, although not increasing the funding to cope with inflation and increasing demand, as these things are services that people expect central government to be responsible for.
- Cut the Home Office as crime was coming down so it was thought that the police could cope with less officers and that their were no votes in protecting spending on the prisons.
- Cut defence spending as the public do not see the armed forces on a regular basis so will not notice the impact.
- Aggressively cut local government, especially in the big, urban areas that are disproportionately Labour Authorities, as the cuts they will make will be blamed on them.
This plan has worked pretty well so far. The success of the strategy as it was applied to local government depended on the compliance, albeit inadvertent and unwitting, of Labour supporting groups. It is a shame so many obliged. It is sad that it is continuing.
Whilst the Labour Party did not win the recent General Election it did make significant progress. One result of this change in the political landscape is that the Tories have backed away from imposing the 3% cut on our schools that the implementation of so-called 'Fair Funding' would have meant. We can make a difference by working together. If Labour Councils are clear about what more Tory Austerity will mean for local services, well before they have to implement it, then there will be time for all people who want a Labour Government to come together and speak out with one voice to effect change.
No Lewisham Labour Mayor will want to cut services. However, they will have no choice if the Tories do not change course. They are not likely to change course if we spend the next 4 years arguing amongst ourselves and blaming each other.
I will save my other 2 points for a later post.