The Tory council that’s lobbying against Cameron’s cuts

9 09 2010

Interesting shenanigans at Conservative-run Derby City Council, which has found itself lobbying against the Tory-led national government’s spending cuts.

At the end of July, a council vote forced Conservative council leader Harvey Jennings to write to communities secretary Eric Pickles in protest at the impact of government funding cuts on Derby.

And then last night, the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems all voted to lobby education secretary Michael Gove over his decision to axe most of the city’s schoolbuilding programme, which was weeks away from signing contracts when he pulled the plug.

So is this a Tory council in revolt? Well, not quite.

This May’s local elections left the council with a three-way split between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. Negotiations saw the Conservatives form a minority administration, with the Lib Dems not part of a coalition but allowing them to govern.

This left the Conservatives vulnerable to defeat on individual votes – as happened in late July, when the council was debating the government’s in-year cuts, and the council’s budget strategy.

The Labour group moved an amendment to approve the council’s budget strategy ‘but to actively lobby against the Government’s proposed 25-30% cuts in grant’ – see page 14 here.

The Conservatives voted against it, but with a few Tory councillors absent and the Lib Dems abstaining – for reasons that aren’t clear, even having spoken to two of their councillors – the amendment was carried.

As a result, Cllr Jennings had to write to Pickles in his capacity as council leader, warning about the impact the cuts would have on Derby. The full letter is here (apologies for the imperfect formatting) – one highlight is where he confirms that imminent funding cuts to local councils are likely to hit poorer areas hardest:

‘A key message I would like to get across is how the funding cuts will not affect all authorities to the same extent. Highly geared, deprived authorities such as Derby are particularly vulnerable to both Specific and Formula Grant cuts and I would urge you to give this serious consideration before any decisions are made on funding share in the comprehensive spending announcement.’

Cllr Jennings takes fire at how the current grant system and three-year settlement – both legacies of the Labour government – favour London boroughs over councils like Derby, and urges Pickles to reform the system before October’s spending review.

And then:

‘…it would be deeply regrettable if we had to cut our capital programme at a time in which we have a strong desire to create jobs for local people.’

What’s this? A Conservative council leader backing public spending as a means of creating jobs for local people? Why yes, yes it is!

In conclusion:

‘To keep the impact on service provision to a minimum we urge that any further cuts announced during the Comprehensive Spending review in October are kept to a minimum.’

No word yet on whether Pickles has replied.

As for the Building Schools for the Future programme, the scrapping of which has provoked concern among many Conservatives, Derby has seen 11 local school redevelopment projects scrapped, and just three ‘sample schools’ saved.

At last night’s council meeting, all three parties backed a proposal to write to Gove opposing the decision to scrap the local BSF programme, and to invite him to Derby to discuss the situation. No doubt a letter will follow shortly.

None of this will realistically alter anything by itself. But it is possible to believe that letters of protest from a series of Conservative and Lib Dem minority-run councils may discomfort the Conservative leadership, and cause the Lib Dem leadership plenty of concern, ahead of next year’s local elections.

Derby City Council hasn’t yet decided what specific cuts it will make, but it expects to reduce spending by £30m over the next five years – on top of £32m it was already planning to cut over three years. This from a total annual budget of £200m. 750 posts will go.

There has been controversy locally over a planned £34m refurbishment of Derby’s council headquarters – Labour says the money could be better spent on schools and services. The council insists the refurbishment will recoup money over time, described in detail by the council here.

Meanwhile, Derbyshire County Council was the target of a 150-strong protest yesterday over plans to increase adult care charges, led by Unison and service users who forced the issue into the council chamber.


Could the Lib Dems’ woes strengthen the coalition?

8 09 2010

Next year’s local elections are seen by many in the anti-cuts movement as a prime opportunity to inflict serious damage on the Liberal Democrats, and by extension weaken the coalition.

While the Conservatives’ poll ratings have generally held up since the election, the Lib Dems have fallen back sharply*. While the figures published this week by The Independent showed their poll ratings stabilise, they are still well down on their election result, and light years from their Clegg surge ratings.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Photo not dated 2011.

Most worryingly for the party, the Independent’s poll suggested that only 62 per cent of Lib Dem voters at the general election would vote for the party again if an election was held today – with 22 percent defecting to Labour.

Many in the anti-cuts movement see the Lib Dems as the weak links in the government, and hope that major losses in the local elections next year could unnerve Liberal Democrat MPs. The thinking is that Lib Dem backbenchers – especially left-wingers and those in Lib-Lab marginals – will fear for their seats if they remain in the coalition, and rebel against the government. Enough rebels means the coalition will collapse.

But while it makes sense to target any parties and councillors who support the cuts, and support those willing to fight against them**, we should be aware that a bad night at the polls next year might actually strengthen the coalition.

Consider this – Lib Dem MPs in Lib-Lab marginals see the party trounced at the polls next year. Maybe they will think that if they stay in the coalition they will lose their seat at the general election – the conclusion being that it’s time to get out.

But it’s equally possible that these MPs might think that collapsing the coalition prematurely would force an early general election in which they would almost certainly lose their seats. They could decide that with the polls looking so bad in 2011, it would be best to tough it out and pray that the economy recovers strongly enough by 2015 that the party’s poll ratings recover and they hold onto their seats.

They may see the choice as between certain disaster in 2011 and probable disaster in 2015. If that’s the choice, many will sit tight and avoid upsetting the applecart.

There is a precedent here – as Labour tanked in the polls during 2008 and 2009, one of the arguments successfully deployed by Gordon Brown’s camp against possible leadership rivals was that any new party leader would have to call a general election to have any kind of legitimacy – and that based on the polls in 2008-9, such an election would lead to absolute disaster.

Labour MPs bought it, and stuck it out to 2010. It’s perfectly possible that a local election disaster next year may lead many Lib Dems to the same conclusion.

That doesn’t mean anti-cuts activists should not target Lib Dem councils next year – it’s just something for the strategists to bear in mind. Forewarned is forearmed.

*Of course, the Lib Dems’ poll ratings also fell back after previous elections – in the past, their support has always dipped between elections, before rising during election campaigns. But this was because they only got publicity at election time; now, their leaders get constant publicity as cabinet ministers – and yet still their ratings fall.

**Whether ‘those willing to fight’ the cuts includes Labour remains to be seen

The council that’s blown its youth service savings on three executive pay-offs

6 09 2010

News in from Children and Young People Now that Sheffield Council has spent most of the £700k it is cutting from youth services on pay-offs to three senior council officials.

The council has spent nearly £670k on redundancy pay-offs to three assistant chief executives, just as compulsory redundancy notices go out to 50 Connexions staff, all of whom will receive the statutory minimum – capped at £11,400.

The three senior executives who received bumper payouts are:

  • Liz Bashforth – assistant chief executive for legal and governance – £331,867
  • Ken Green – assistant chief executive for organisational development and communications – £200k
  • Ron Barraclough – assistant chief executive for policy and performance – £125k

Unison regional officer Kevin Osborne told CYPN: “There is clearly a policy of ‘us and them’ at the city council. At a time when public sector workers are having their wages frozen and facing redundancies, these payments are unacceptable.”

Unison is currently balloting its members for industrial action over the job cuts at the Liberal Democrat-controlled council.

As commentary, I don’t think anyone’s arguing that if there are to be cutbacks, highly paid senior managers should be well ahead of frontline staff in the firing line for redundancy.

What I don’t know is whether the terms of the three executives’ contracts meant that the council was legally obliged to pay them £670k.

If the council was obliged to make these payments under the contracts, then they clearly agreed to some pretty daft contracts for senior management. If the council wasn’t obliged, then it is showering these executives with extraordinary largesse, regardless of how competent they were in their roles.

Either way, it’s a mess.

UPDATE: bgb in the comments has informed me that the council was Labour-run at the time these executives’ contracts were agreed, and that the payouts were contractual obligations. Therefore it would appear that the previous Labour council leadership should shoulder most of the blame over the size of the payouts.

Fighting the cuts in Cambridgeshire – Q&A

6 09 2010

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be speaking to anti-cuts campaigners from across the country about what they’re doing and what advice they have for other activists.

First up, Steve Sweeney of Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts, who I spoke to outside the Coalition of Resistance planning meeting in London last week. Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts was set up back in March, before the general election – a reminder that cuts were taking place under the previous Labour government.

The campaign was initiated by the local Unison branch and the two trade union councils in the area – Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdon & St Neots. Other union branches have since got involved, and the group is reaching out to individual campaigns outside the union movement.

They’re now campaigning against a raft of cuts proposed by the Tory-run county council, including £4m off the libraries budget.

What is the council cutting in Cambridgeshire?

“We’ve got massive cuts to the budget imposed by Cambridgeshire County Council. The services they’re looking at cutting are typically things like adult care services, services for the elderly. We’re looking at day care centres, libraries.

“Youth services are being targeted – Connexions, they’re under real threat. The Unison branch in Cambridgeshire are trying to organise against the closures, there’s a petition up and running, they’re hoping to get enough names to force a debate in the council chamber. The Tories think they can get away by hammering young people, but the young people are angry – we’ve tried to get them involved in the campaign, and what we’re hoping is that if it does trigger this debate in the council chamber we’ll get somebody who’s affected, one of the young people, in there on the council floor, telling it like it is to the councillors. And hopefully they’ll listen.”

Does the council have any option other than to make these cuts?

“They’ve got reserve funds and they do have money. These are ideologically driven cuts, we know that. They’ve also attacked our trade union, they’ve cut our facilities time, which people are going to be without representation while these cuts are going on, while people are losing their jobs.”

How do you find out about local anti-cuts campaigns outside the union movement?

“Rooting ourselves in the community. Obviously we’re not just trade unionists and individual campaigners; we’re members of the community, so we’re living in the places where these cuts are happening. We’ve tried to make the campaign quite high profile: we’ve had rallies, we’ve had workshops, we’ve had marches and we’ve been through town as well. People know that we’re there, people know that we’re about, and we’re trying to get roots into communities, because the danger is that once closures start to happen, unless we are actually there, rooted in the communities, it leaves it open to exploitation, and groups like the far right try and come in. That’s another thing that we’re campaigning against.”

What activity is there in the rural parts of Cambridgeshire?

“These are potentially the areas that are the most open to being influenced by the far right, because there seems to be a bit of a political vacuum in those areas. It’s a very conservative area in a lot of ways, there’s not really an organised Left, and trade union organisation probably isn’t as active as it has been out in those areas, although that is changing now with the Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts campaign.

“Huntingdon & St Neots Trade Council is up and running again, risen phoenix-like from the flames, and we’re starting to get the more agricultural branches – so we’ve got Unite who are quite a key player in the agricultural branches.

“Cambridgeshire’s quite a big area. There are issues in these rural areas – libraries is one of the key things – and we’re trying to combine those, and linking the libraries campaign to the wider issues that follow on from that.”

What kind of reception have you had in the rural areas?

“We’ve been quite well received. We do have supporters that are out there that are key to getting these things up and running. Huntingdon & St Neots trade council – they’re the two main areas. Grouped around that are more rural areas, villages and the such like, so we’ve been trying to work in those areas, getting out and about as well. Things are moving.

“We’ve got to be realistic and come from where we are, and try and take it forward from there.”

How supportive have Labour been locally?

“In Cambridge itself, they’ve been reasonably supportive. During the general election, the Labour candidate was supporting Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts’ activities, he was at the lobby of the county council over the budget and he spoke on the radio about why the budget cuts were a bad idea. They’ve been fairly supportive in Cambridge and they’re continuing to be.

“Huntingdon’s a different matter. In Huntingdon the Labour Party are virtually non-existent – they had to parachute somebody in from outside during the general election campaign. The key issue of the day was the privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital and she fell on the wrong side of that debate. But they’re not a campaigning organisation – in Huntingdon they’ve got very few members, it’s a shell really.

“Two different CLPs, and two different experiences.”

Advice for anti-cuts campaigners:

What things have worked for your campaign?

“We’ve had a number of things that do work – going out, speaking to people face-to-face is one of the things that does work, and that’s absolutely key. Once you can get a group of like-minded people together that are opposed to cuts, that’s the starting point.

“Activity-wise, we’ve been going out, we’ve been doing petitions, we’ve been doing lobbies of council meetings. To get the ball rolling, things that are quite high profile – rallies, marches.

“But we’ve been doing nitty-gritty stuff as well, like door-knocking, getting involved and finding out about campaigns in our communities and getting ourselves involved in those kind of things.

“Linking things together, and making sure that we’re moving wider than the trade union movement, wider than the same faces that we get along to the same meetings. And it’s working, we’re getting people that we haven’t seen before, people that are coming along to meetings, speaking, getting involved, getting things up and running.

“Letter-writing to the newspapers – and it worked, it sparks debate, and we’ve actually swung the media round on certain issues. We’re positioning ourselves to say you don’t need to make these cuts at all. These cuts are ideologically driven, there are other things that you can do – the obvious ones being Trident, bringing the troops home, taxing the bankers.”

And what would you advise campaigners to steer clear of?

“Sometimes when we haven’t looked beyond our regular group of people, when we’ve kept it to ourselves. Sometimes we’ve had rallies in town that haven’t gone particularly well – I think it’s about choosing your moment.

“But as we’re building we’re finding our feet, we’re learning. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don’t be demoralised if you do. If you do hold a meeting and it’s not successful in terms of getting people turning up, don’t be demoralised by that, but just keep on, because part of that is a sign of the times that we’re in – people are used to defeats and people are used to setbacks. They think, what’s the point of getting up and doing anything about it? That’s one of the things we have to counter and that’s one of the things that could demoralise groups and think, well, it’s going to be a failure – but it’s worth persevering with.”

Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts –

Connexions cuts – the national list

2 09 2010

A Thousand Cuts has published a comprehensive database of cuts announced so far to the Connexions youth service.

Connexions provides universal information, advice and guidance to young people, and works with young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) to help them back into education or work.

The service is funded by local authorities with an area based grant (ABG) from central government, but after the coalition government cut this grant by 24 percent in June, applied to this financial year (‘in-year’), councils across England have announced cutbacks to local Connexions services.

A Thousand Cuts and Unison have now collated details of Connexions cuts from councils across England – the full database can be seen here. The database covers all councils that administer Connexions services, with information sourced from council announcements, local press reports, Children and Young People Now, and local Unison branches.

While some councils have yet to announce the cuts they will make, the database shows that many Connexions services are facing severe cuts to funding and jobs. Many local authorities are planning to scale back the universal Connexions service into a targeted service – although Lewisham is reducing support for NEETs with mental health issues, while East Sussex is cutting back projects for school students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

The Connexions services which are under threat of outright closure are:

  • Windsor & Maidenhead – council is terminating the contract with Connexions at the end of March 2011; the council has emphasised this is due to government funding cuts, not the service’s performance
  • Brighton & Hove – Connexions service at risk of closure, with schools having to provide advice to teenagers on issues such as sexual health, careers, housing and healthy living
  • Birmingham – closure of the Connexions service is one of three options presented to council bosses, which would leave the council unable to fulfil its statutory obligations

Among the local authorities scaling back universal services in favour of targeted programmes are:

  • Cambridgeshire – no more open access youth clubs, and 1:1 careers guidance only for Year 11 and upwards (and even then only for youngsters within the targeted group)
  • Havering – service will become more targeted and deliver fewer universal services over the next five years
  • Portsmouth – significantly reduced services delivered to school-age young people
  • West Sussex – new integrated youth service will be targeted at specific groups, including young offenders, looked-after children, teenage parents and NEETs, with reduced funding for youth clubs and charities

While local authorities implementing large-scale job cuts to the Connexions services include:

  • Norfolk – 50 per cent cut in funding, with 65 whole-time equivalent (WTE) jobs going; centres are being closed, and guidance will be delivered over the phone and electronically
  • Sunderland – 41 WTE jobs at risk
  • Halton and St Helens – at least 120 posts could go due to a nearly 40% cut
  • Birmingham – Connexions expected to be hardest hit out of 430 job losses council-wide
  • Staffordshire – 55 jobs at risk, including half the entire workforce at Leek
  • Sheffield – 95 jobs at risk of redundancy

Regular readers of A Thousand Cuts will know that the in-year nature of the government’s cuts has magnified their detrimental effect, forcing councils to rush to cut any spending that is not legally committed, often regardless of how important the spending actually is.

In the case of Connexions, the fact that a lot of the funding for 2010/11 had already been legally committed or spent when the ABG cuts were announced has meant that the impact of 24 percent cut is being magnified for the second half of the financial year – because councils could not cut first-half funding which had already been committed, eye-watering cuts are being made for the second half. Among such councils are:

  • Northamptonshire – 40% cut in funding for the second half of 2010/11, with all 175 staff placed at risk of redundancy; Unison fears 50 jobs could eventually go
  • Sutton – 50-60% cut over the second half of 2010/11
  • Cheshire & Warrington – 33% cut, with youth centre hubs at Northwich, Ellesmere Port, Knutsford and Congleton set to close
  • Wigan – 40% cut, with more than £20m put aside to pay off staff

However, there are councils that value Connexions as an important service, and are trying to protect its funding by making savings elsewhere. Among those local authorities that have managed to avoid major (or in some cases, any) cuts to Connexions are:

  • Stockton-on-Tees – no in-year cuts, as council is using uncommitted budgets, reserves and value for money savings to protect Connexions
  • Black Country (Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton) – cuts seem to have been achieved with redeployment
  • Redcar & Cleveland – no significant cuts to customer-facing Connexions services, and no job losses
  • Middlesbrough – no in-year cuts

Many local authorities have yet to finalise the impact of the government’s in-year cuts – many councils expect to reach decisions this month, so the national picture is likely to get worse. Moreover, the government’s October spending review may lead to even more severe cuts to local government funding – so further cuts to Connexions in future years may be on the horizon.

Over the coming weeks, A Thousand Cuts will be looking at the track record of Connexions, the issues around replacing universal services with a targeted approach – and will be looking at some of the local campaigns taking place to protect this service.

PS – If any information on the database is incorrect, or if there’s anything I’ve missed out, please do let me know in the comments below. The information published reflects the best available information at the time of publication

PPS – while this database has been compiled by A Thousand Cuts and Unison, no payment from Unison was ever requested, offered or received, and the entering of information and data into the database was completed entirely by A Thousand Cuts at our discretion

New BSF delays imminent as Gove wreaks more havoc on schools

25 08 2010

The national school-building programme has been thrown into confusion once again after the government delayed work on schools that have been approved for development.

When Education Secretary Michael Gove scrapped Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme earlier this summer, he allowed a small number of ‘sample school’ projects to go ahead where contracts had yet to be signed.

But according to business publication Infrastructure Journal [subscription required], Partnerships for Schools (PfS) – the national agency that oversees the BSF programme – has written to the councils and private firms developing these sample school projects, warning them to halt work pending yet another review.

The move throws many school projects back into limbo. Gove had delayed a decision on the sample schools before finally approving a number of them earlier this month. The latest review will delay these schemes yet again.

Under the review, Gove will consider the legal structures under which the schools are built on a case-by-case basis. The letter states: ‘There is no certainty as to what structure may or may not be permitted and it is possible [Gove] may conclude that no form of exclusivity is acceptable.’

This exclusivity point is crucial – it amounts to a strong suggestion that the government is trying to extricate the BSF schemes in question from the exclusivity arrangements that are automatically granted to the selected private sector bidder. This exclusivity gives the selected bidder the sole right to develop any school project over a certain value (typically £100,000) in the given area over a 10-year period.

The problem for the government is this:

  • where BSF schemes had selected a private sector bidder but not yet signed binding contracts, Gove kept some of their sample school projects but ditched the remaining projects
  • for the sample schools to go ahead, the schemes now need to sign binding contracts
  • signing binding contracts will give legal effect to the exclusivity arrangements, meaning no other company can carry out a major school project in the area for 10 years
  • this means that other than the sample school projects, no other school redevelopment would be able to proceed, no matter how necessary, without the involvement or blessing of the selected private sector bidder

Schemes that had already signed binding contracts before Gove axed BSF are not affected. Gove approved these schemes in their entirety, meaning all local school redevelopment is going ahead in these areas.

But the potential problems in areas where only sample schools were approved explain why Gove is now searching for a get-out clause from the exclusivity arrangements.

And while he looks for a way out via this latest review, important school redevelopment work must wait even longer. PfS has instructed the affected local authorities not to incur any more expenditure on their schemes pending the review.

Kiel Porter, the reporter who broke the story for Infrastructure Journal, told A Thousand Cuts: “Technically they can do it as nothing has been signed, but it would create all sorts of problems.

“First it would make a mockery of the bidding process and allow not just the preferred bidder but also losing bidders to claim the process was flawed. The test case (SITA v Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority) is still going on three years later with fees totalling millions.

“Second it would require a completely new project agreement that could take months to draft – and no one has the time to do it. Schools are already falling behind.”

Quite apart from yet another bungle from the increasingly hapless Gove – does anyone still describe him as a ‘rising star’? – it is also an example of how the government’s deficit machismo is blowing up in its face.

By rushing ahead with major cuts in an attempt to strike intimidating postures of intent, the government has not thought things through and is seeing unexpected problems crop up all over the place.

With BSF, we’ve already had the shambles over the publication of inaccurate lists of cancelled schools because Gove didn’t want to check the data first. Now we have Gove firing off panicking letters via PfS because he evidently didn’t consider the exclusivity issue when he axed BSF in the first place.

But it’s not just BSF. The in-year funding cuts to local authorities have forced councils to desperately hack away at local services such as Connexions. Had the cuts been delayed by a year, councils would at least have been able to prepare in advance and avoid making legally binding spending commitments.

Instead they must rush cuts through with large amounts of spending already committed. Council spending cuts have been determined not by the relative importance of specific services, but by which services have signed bits of paper and which do not.

Meanwhile Andrew Lansley’s hasty ‘denationalisation’ of NHS commissioning is heading for the courts over the legality of its unconvincing consultation process.

When millions of people’s personal details went missing under Labour in late 2007, the then-Shadow Chancellor George Osborne delivered this scathing attack on a government that had become obsessed with finding a grand vision:

“Never mind the lack of vision – just get a grip and deliver a basic level of competence.”

As the coalition revels in its epochal ‘transformation’ of the public sector, Osborne and co would do well to heed their own advice.

Salami slicing in Maulden & Houghton Conquest

17 08 2010

With local government shutting down over August, I’ll take this opportunity to run down some of the cuts taking place in councils around the country.

First up, Central Bedfordshire. This fairly rural area, comprised of such wards as Maulden & Houghton Conquest, announced its in-year cuts in mid-July.

As ever, children and young people’s funding took the biggest hit, after the government cut education area based grants (ABG) by 24 percent.

But while some councils have cut sought to protect certain priority areas – Connexions, for example – Central Bedfordshire opted for a salami slice approach, cutting equally from all budget lines with no thought to priorities.

As a result, everything has had a 23.964557 percent budget cut. Give or take the odd one-thousandth of a percent.

Among the cuts are £450k from the Connexions service, £60k from work to support the prevention of exclusions from school, just under £70k from start-up costs for extended schools projects (breakfast clubs etc), and £6k from work to tackle substance misuse among young people.