While many councils in deprived areas are currently grappling with how to implement the government’s in-year cuts, something extraordinary is going on in the south London borough of Lewisham.
The Labour-run council, led by the directly elected Labour mayor Steve ‘Butcher’ Bullock, are not just planning in-year savings – they are lining up huge cuts to frontline services over the next four years, with a staggering one in four council jobs set to go.
Adult social care and children’s services will take massive hits and five libraries could close if Lewisham Council gets its way. The council is trying to pre-empt the 25 percent local government funding cuts that many expect the government to announce in its spending review this autumn.
Rather than fight the coalition cuts, Bullock and co are positively rushing to carry them out – and in doing so, they give the rest of us a warning of what’s to come in every corner of the country.
If the first punch don’t hit you…
While some of the in-year cuts passed by Bullock at a council cabinet meeting this Wednesday were underspends, some important services did take a hit:
- a mental health support worker to assist young people not in education, employment or training (NEET), referred by the Connexions youth advice service
- summer university bitesize training courses for young people
- a dedicated youth worker to provide info and guidance to target hard to reach young people
- non-recruitment of a teacher trained to advise children who are complex deaf/blind
- a project delivered by Catch 22 that provides support to reduce the number of young people who offend and reoffend
Even these leave Lewisham more than half a million pounds short of the in-year savings target.
…the next punch sure will…
But far worse is in store. With Chancellor George Osborne announcing in the Budget that local government funding could drop by 25 percent following the autumn spending review, Lewisham Council has decided to pre-empt the coalition government by identifying £60m of ‘phase one’ cuts that can be carried out over the next few years.
A vast array of potential cuts and closures to be implemented between 2011 and 2014 was presented to the meeting, with a final decision due in November. The list is eye-watering – here’s just a taster of what’s in store:
- removing childcare subsidies from local providers, leading to an increase in costs
- cutting support for parents through the child protection process
- end of full-time staffing for NEET reduction programmes in primary schools, as part of further cuts to the Connexions service
- closure of five libraries – Sydenham, Blackheath, Crofton Park, Grove Park and New Cross
- reduced staffing for neighbourhood safety teams
- cutting council funding for police community support officers (PCSOs) by 50 percent
- widespread cutbacks to adult social care, including increasing charges for non-residential services and increased cost for Meals on Wheels
- end night-time refuse collection in busy markets and shopping areas
- reduced use of street cleaning machines – the council’s own assessment admits this will lead to ‘increased levels of detritus’
- charge residents for replacement of lost or stolen wheelie bins
- reducing economic development to a core service – the council admits these cuts ‘would be likely to impact disproportionally on the most vulnerable of the borough’s residents’
- reduced funding for the anti-fraud and corruption team
…but we’ll chuck in another one just to make sure
And if that wasn’t enough – there are already plans for a ‘phase two’ of cutbacks also ready to be brought into consideration. These include closing at least one of the borough’s four early years centres (which provide full day care for children under five), halving the number of council buildings including libraries, adult education and community centres, and slashing funding on parks and open space improvements.
And to top if all off, the council’s phase two proposals – which will be brought back to the cabinet in November – assume up to a quarter of all council jobs will go.
Nothing frontline about these cuts, then.
And how much money will all those cuts save? £31.9m. Lewisham will need to cut twice as much to meet its £60m target.
Bullock said that he found some of the proposed cuts “unpalatable”, and that they were only listed so as to rule nothing out. The council plans to hold a public consultation on the cuts – advertised through such must-read tomes as the council’s Lewisham Life magazine.
Susannah Perry, a local middle-class parent and lawyer, gave her own account at the meeting of the likelihood of this consultation being genuine.
“I know from the branch of law that I practise that the obligation to consultation does not actually include an obligation to listen to a word that anybody says or alter your opinion, and forgive me if I’m sceptical,” she said.
“I know that sometimes it’s merely an exercise in jumping through hoops. I very much hope that in this instance it won’t be.”
She called for the council to reconsider closing Blackheath library. “Blackheath easily falls foul of stereotypes of wealthy, middle class, educated privileged people – precisely like me – and that therefore it is considered something that is more easily dispensed.
“I sat next to children whose parents did not have the opportunities that I have, whose parents’ houses did not have books in them, and whose opportunities were necessarily or inevitably restricted because they did not have access to education.”
The fightback begins
Prior to Wednesday’s council meeting, around 70 protesters from local trade union branches held a rally against the cuts.
Martin Powell-Davies, from Lewisham TUC, spoke to me at the rally about the council’s massive planned cuts. “The only difference is that the phase one is the £21m that they already think they can get away with. The only difference is that the phase two are ones that they’re a little bit more wary about rushing ahead with.”
Commenting on the massive potential council job losses, he said: “There is no real major employer outside the council and public services in Lewisham – there will be a massive knock-on effect on unemployment and on the local economy as a whole.
“I met with Steve Bullock for a consultation meeting last week, and I put to him that as the Labour mayor that those who voted for him would be expecting him to fight the cuts. And really his view was that people might think that as a Labour politician, but that his job was to balance the books. And I’m afraid that’s the job of a chief executive – he’s there as a Labour mayor and he should be fighting these cuts, not just carrying out the dirty work for the government.”
Powell-Davies, a local Socialist Party activist, said that the detail of Labour’s planned cuts had got lost in the election campaign in May – when Labour won control of the council – and that the plans were only becoming clear now.
Welcome to the future
Butcher Bullock has made his stance clear – he will act as Osborne’s man in Lewisham. Local Labour activists and backbench councillors need to ask themselves if this is what they signed up to the party and knocked on doors for.
But for the rest of us, Lewisham is a warning of what is to come across the country. By pre-empting the spending review and planning for 25 percent cuts now, Lewisham is showing us the kind of frontline cuts and massive job losses that will become a regular sight across Britain from October, when the review takes place.
If Bullock gets away with it, Lewisham will be a blueprint for the axemen. If a successful campaign can be built to stop him, it will be a blueprint for the rest of us.
The full list of proposed in-year cuts is here, but not all of them were approved by Steve Bullock