This post was published as the Saturday Guest column in The Argus on 31st October.
I agree with Caroline Lucas (Saturday Guest, October 24th) that the agonisingly difficult cuts are ones we are being forced to make by the Conservative Government, who are passing the blame and anger they bring down to local council level. Why would any councillor make hugely unpopular cuts to valued local services if realistic alternatives were on offer?
It would be helpful if her Green Party colleagues on the city council shared her view that the blame for the cuts lies in Westminster, not with the council leadership. Instead they take any opportunity to attack the Labour-led council elected in May in every leaflet and every speech. They launched a “Save Hove library” campaign; wrongly claiming it was being shut rather than moved. They have blamed us for changes to support for children with special needs, ignoring the fact that the decision was made under Green leadership of the council, not Labour’s.
We have to find £7 million to balance the books this year, and cuts of £25 million a year in order to stop the council facing a funding gap of more than £100 million in 2019. Not cutting one area by 30% means we have to cut another area by more than 30%.
We will do our best to keep the discount on council tax we give to those on the lowest incomes at 70% or more, but the government are cutting funding for that as well, so doing it will again mean deeper cuts elsewhere. Remember that almost all of the money we get in parking charges goes towards funding bus passes for older people, a service the Government now requires us to pay for.
I disagree with Caroline Lucas when she says we should “look again” at raising council tax, only possible through staging a costly referendum, to offset the cuts. We would need to increase council tax on everyone, not just the wealthiest, by over 25% next year to fill the gap in our funding. That would surely mean pushing many more residents into poverty, even those working full-time.
Setting an illegal budget would only hand control of the council to the Government, guaranteeing even deeper cuts and rapid privatisation of services. The voters of Brighton and Hove rejected the Green approach to running the city in May, and asked Labour to take over.
Here’s what I and my Labour colleagues will do. We will join with councillors from all parties in the Local Government Association calling on the Government for a fairer funding settlement for councils like ours. I will stand in the office of the Secretary of State for Local Government and make that case to his face. I will make the case for power and funding to be devolved to the Greater Brighton city region.
We will do everything we can to keep the council from going bankrupt and keep services going. The Playbus for example, hugely valued in wards like mine, but a service we can no longer afford to run. We are asking any business in the city that wants to help to step forward and sponsor this service to our youngest residents and their families. Indeed if there is any council service your organisation wants to help keep going, we’d love to hear from you.
We will accelerate the process of building new homes and major projects in the city, all of which will bring in new council tax, new business rates and new rental income for the council. We will look at every land and building asset we have, getting the most out of it or selling it to buy something that delivers a better return.
We will build thousands of new council houses and truly affordable homes protected from the right to buy, so that the cost of somewhere to live isn’t driving people into greater and greater debt. We will push for more jobs, better paid jobs, and good apprenticeships to lift people out of unemployment and in-work poverty.
We will cut the costs of management and councillors, share support services with other councils, and work ever more closely with the voluntary sector and our public sector colleagues to get better value for money. Where we can protect pay and conditions and ensure local, democratic control, we will work with the local private sector too, making the best use of their skills and your money in our city’s economy.
We will invest in new technology, community hubs and neighbourhood services that focus what we have in delivering for you, your street and your area. We will put services before buildings, and people before politics every time.
Protesting is easy, as the Greens have proven. Delivering essential services for you, your neighbourhoods and communities under the cuts we face will be incredibly hard. Choices will be painful, but I and my colleagues will do our very best for you, and we ask every resident, every business, every voluntary organisation and every part of this city to work with us in the task ahead.