Nights of the long knives loom in Labour London

23 07 2010

While many councils continue to work their way through the consequences of the coalition government’s in-year cuts, the prospect of 25 or even 33 percent funding cuts over the next five years is leading to some ominous budget planning in town halls.

We’ve already seen Lewisham mayor Steve ‘Butcher’ Bullock line up swingeing across the board cuts in order to save more than £60m by 2014. Now other London councils are sharpening their knives for severe cuts in the coming years.

Waltham Forest council has warned that it will need to cut £15m per year for 2011/12 and 2012/13. This is on top of the £2.6m in-year cuts to area based grants, while the council is also trying to reduce a £5m overspend racked up primarily in adult care and children’s services. Council officials are currently working on the details of both the in-year and mid-term cutbacks.

Meanwhile, Lambeth council has set itself a savings target of £62m over three years. Lambeth Unison reports that the council has already imposed more than 450 job cuts – 215 in children’s services, up to 70 in adult services, and 125 in housing.

Again, officials are still working on the detail of the in-year cuts – but the council has said it will have to sell off £100m of property. Most of the council’s £2.3bn portfolio consists of council dwellings, roads and schools, although bosses will presumably try and avoid selling these off as far as possible.

And then there’s Southwark, which warns of cutting £76m over four years should the government reduce core funding by a third in its spending review this autumn. The council’s finance cabinet member Richard Livingstone himself said such a severe cutback would be “catastrophic”.

As it stands, Southwark is already coping with £5.1m of in-year cuts – cue the now familiar reductions to the Connexions youth service and extended schools, which provide activities before and after the school day.

Lambeth, Lewisham, Waltham Forest and Southwark – these are all Labour-run councils coping with Tory-Lib Dem slashernomics. Putting to one side how much Labour would have cut from local government had it won the election, they must all now decide what kind of fight they will put up.

Attitudes vary. Butcher Bullock has made it quite clear he has no interest in taking on the government, rushing to bring out three lists of cuts in his rush to appease the Exchequer.

Southwark, by (partial) contrast, is holding a consultation process in and amongst the community before deciding what to cut, and like many Labour councils, has written to the government expressing anger over the funding squeeze.

But cuts of 25 percent or 33 percent are not really mere cuts – they represent an existential threat to the very  nature and role of local government, and to the public sector as a whole. If the cuts are implemented, British local government will be decimated beyond all recognition.

Labour council leaders need to work out if this is a process they will play a full part in – or if they are willing to formulate a strategy for stopping it in its tracks.

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