The policies are great, but what about the money?

26th July, 2014 10:30 am

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After four years of massive cuts, 2015 is the year when council finances will start to fall off a cliff.

Local government has borne the brunt of the cuts to public spending since 2010. My Council, Islington, typical of authorities in urban areas across the country, has lost 35% of its budget over the last four years. That’s a staggering £112 million.

Councils have done a great job of coping with these cuts. My Council has gone through a process of transforming public services that would be the envy of any government department in Whitehall. In four years we have improved public services in a way that would be impossible for a sclerotic central government.

What is remarkable is that this kind of innovation is common across local government. Labour councils across the country are leading the way in showing how we can build a fairer Britain without breaking the bank.

But all of this work is threatened by the next round of cuts to councils. Under the Tory-led Government’s spending plans we are set to lose another third of our budget over the next four years.

Continuing to cut major councils this harshly will lead to chaos. Councils spend the vast majority of their resources on care for older people and children with disabilities, as well as on basic services like street sweeping and bin collections. After four years of big cuts I don’t know of a council that has much fat left to cut before core services become hard to deliver beyond what is legally required.

Labour’s current policy is to keep the Tories’ spending limits for local government but to redistribute the money towards the councils that have been cut the most. This will secure a few million more a year for councils like mine; welcome but nowhere near enough to stave off damaging cuts to services. It was telling that the National Policy Forum held last weekend agreed a range of excellent policies for local government, but was silent on the crucial question of money.

Put simply, Labour has to recognise that councils cannot survive the kind of cuts that are planned for the next few years and we need to definitively break away from the Tories’ spending proposals. Unless we do, some high profile councils will go bust.

The councillors I speak to aren’t unrealistic – we know spending won’t be returning to 2010 levels. There is zero appetite for a return to 1980’s gesture politics around illegal budgets. We’ve become used to managing services on eye wateringly tight budgets. But – and this is important – we don’t accept that under Labour things have to keep getting worse.

As the backbone of the party, Labour’s 7,000 plus councilors have every right to make this ask. We make the second biggest financial contribution to national party funding through our subs and, in addition, fund a national network of local organisers that many CLPs rely on. Councillors tend to be the activists that keep local parties alive. In an era where grassroots campaigning is more and more important we are crucial to the party’s electoral chances.

As champions of our local communities, councillors are duty-bound to make the strongest case for the people we represent. But we need strong voices to make sure the priorities of Labour in local government are heard by the central party. Jim McMahon as the new leader of the LGA Labour Group has already made a strong start on this front, and is telling everyone who will listen about the innovation Labour councils are driving.

Recognition of the work Labour councils do, respect for the thousands of councillors who are the back-bone of our party and understanding that cutting local services even further will be deeply damaging is what we need from the Labour Party leadership. I know my friend and colleague Cllr Alice Perry is fighting hard for this through the National Policy Forum and as a candidate for the NEC as an ALC representative. Together with others in local government, Alice has the ability and values to make a difference.

Labour’s first budget needs to protect local services, devolve more power to local councils and ensure a fairer funding formula, so Labour councils hit by Tory cuts will be better off. That way we can truly say that Labour in government will make a difference for local communities.

Cllr. Richard Watts is Leader of Islington Council

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  • Paul

    Two points, in ascending importance:

    1) Of course councillors are a key contributor to the party. That’s because you get councillor allowances, of wildly varying amount across the country. So while I can’t quickly check how much you get as leader in Islington because your website has a redirect loop on it, your equivalent in Camden gets around £38,000 in basic and special responsibility allowances.

    Now I don’t begrudge you that, as many cabinet members have to/choose to do the job as full-time (and I certainly cut other paid work when I was a group leader), and in London that’s not a massive wage, but to claim that your views should get extra preference because you pay more in, when you also get more out from the overall system, won’t sit well with a lot of non-councillors who work bloody hard for the wider political cause too (e.g as I do now as an unpaid governor on an NHS Trust, or as an unpaid Chair of Governors).

    2) I don’t know why you’re ignoring the really quite important bit of the overall proposals coming through the policy review for a five year funding package, with accountability through local Public Accounts Committtees, which will allow you to draw forward spend in years 1-3 on the basis of projected savings later because of that investment.

    That won’t sort the whole thing, but it’s not be ignored, surely.

    • JoeDM

      Why should local councillors be paid anything? It should be a voluntary public service not a job !!!

      • PoundInYourPocket

        Yes – being a councillor should be the exclusive preserve of the retired wealthy.

        • JoeDM

          Rubbish. It never stopped people like my miner father-in-law being a Labour councillor for many years. It was his hobby and got him out of the house most evenings (I won’t make the obvious mother-in-law joke).

          • PoundInYourPocket

            Sorry, of course, – being a councillor should be a hobby.

          • JoeDM

            Hobby is probably the best word for it, but that does not mean it is not taken as seriously. The last thing you want is yet another jobsworth politican in a safe ward.

            20 years ago I used to be part of a voluntary organisation that ran part of the local arts budget on behalf of a district council. I chaired the music committee and sat on the local arts council management committee. We were asked to join the committees due to our work in local arts organisation and I was the Concert Sec. of the local classical music club. We had a budget provided by the council and the local music societies & clubs would apply to my committee for funding. We all did this without thought of payment. It was a commitment to the arts in our town and it was a very serious hobby of mine and the others involved and required a big commitment of time and effort that I was glad to give. Satisfaction came from seeing good quality local semi-professional and professional performances & productions in our town.

      • gunnerbear

        They should be paid – just not tens of thousands of pounds nor be members of the LGPS.

    • gunnerbear

      Not sure if this helps…..

      MEMBERS’ ALLOWANCES SCHEME 2013/14

      In line with paragraph 15 of the Local Authorities (Members’ Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003, the total sum paid to Councillors in the 2013/14 financial year under the Members’ Allowances Scheme was as follows:

      Basic Allowance

      All Councillors received an allowance of £9,698

      Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA)

      SRA’s were paid as follows: Band 4

      Amount £

      Leader of the Council – Councillor Catherine West
      21,865
      Replaced by Councillor Richard Watts in October 2013
      17,366

      Band 3

      Executive Members

      Councillor Janet Burgess
      28,500

      Councillor Paul Convery
      28,500

      Councillor Richard Greening
      3,600
      Replaced by Councillor Joe Caluori May 2013
      24,898

      Councillor James Murray
      28,500

      Councillor Barbara Sidnell
      28,500

      Councillor Paul Smith
      3,600
      Replaced by Councillor Rakhia Ismail May 2013
      24,697

      Councillor Richard Watts
      14,940
      Replaced by Councillor Andy Hull October 2013
      13,560

      Not a bad little screw…..

  • volcanopete

    The question of a local authority’s risk of non-compliance with statutory duty applies not just to the budget-fixing process,it applies also across the board to vulnerable human beings,such as those with learning difficulties and children in care.Everyone is getting ready to take local authorities to court up and down the country as essential care services are so systemically unsafe they become illegal.

  • Dan

    Very well said.

    Please can you and your fellow Labour councillors everywhere please keep speaking out more. No matter how many good “reforms” they do, yet more spending cuts WILL inevitably mean more poverty and worse public services.

  • Steve Stubbs

    OK you have made a case that you should get more cash. Now make a case as to what other planned programme should be cut to provide it from.

    And please, let’s not have any red herrings about Trident. The savings over the next couple of years from scrapping that would not pay for the increase in LGA members self authorised expenses.

  • Jeremy Wright

    Councillors tend to be the only ones doing any campaigning at all now in many of our areas. And yes, councillors should be recompensed for the time they give up, being responsible for an area of policy like community safety,regeneration for 200,000 or more people in most cases within London Boroughs if you are a cabinet member, is a task that cannot be taken lightly and should be remunerated in kind.

  • HEATHER WAKEFIELD

    No mention here of the parlous state of local government pay and conditions – by far the worst in the public sector. UNISON members and others have helped to keep and improve local services during ‘austerity’ , with no reward other than mass redundancies and cuts to pay and conditions. Islington of course is one of the few notable and laudable exceptions, but unless the LGA Labour Group wakes up and smells the coffee quickly, it is unlikely that many local government workers will rush to support Labour in the local and General Elections next year. And who could blame them?

  • HEATHER WAKEFIELD

    No mention here of the parlous state of local government pay and conditions – by far the worst in the public sector. UNISON members and others have helped to keep and improve local services during ‘austerity’ , with no reward other than mass redundancies and cuts to pay and conditions. Islington of course is one of the few notable and laudable exceptions, but unless the LGA Labour Group wakes up and smells the coffee quickly, it is unlikely that many local government workers will rush to support Labour in the local and General Elections next year. And who could blame them?

  • Well said!
    Councillors contribute the second largest amount to Labour’s coffers. We have a right to be listened to as a key part of the Labour movement – not in some 1970s ‘we pay you so you are in our pocket’ type way, but as respected colleagues that deliver Labour promises to Labour voters.
    And on top of that, we pay for a national network of local organisers that can be the backbone that facilitates local activity.

    Now is not the time for the party nationally to play ‘beat the Tories’ in an austerity promises auction

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