Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Local authorities on the brink

Published in Morning Star 18/3/14:
I once received a letter which said: "Like you, we believe local services are more important than frozen poultry."

I was mildly puzzled because I couldn't recall ever having made such a profound analysis.

It turns out it was a reply to something a colleague had sent out contrasting the local paper's silence about 1,500 council job cuts with its campaign against 547 job losses at a chicken factory.

Those 547 redundancies would have a real human cost for the workers, the community and the local economy.

But why the silence about three times as many jobs being lost in the local council? It doesn't matter where the jobs are cut, communities feel the same effects.

One reason is the corporate media conditioning that council jobs are just bureaucratic or "non-jobs."
Local government gets a bad press and it suits central government to keep it that way. Cut the money and pass the blame. Freeze the council tax and pretend you can still deliver front-line services.

Green councillor Gavin Corbett has calculated that if the Scottish government had allowed council tax to rise, capped by inflation, since 2007 - while maintaining its nominal £7 million incentive - Edinburgh Council would have started 2014 with £52.6m more than it did.

That would have avoided £36m of cuts in areas like disability and children's services and rises in charges.

Across Scotland, it might have avoided some of the care crisis exposed by a Unison Scotland survey uncovering zero-hours contracts for home carers, "pit-stop" care visits, poverty pay and a demoralised workforce.

Of course in the world of real politics nobody is keen on a council tax rise. That in itself is a conundrum, given all the claims in the constitutional debate about the utopia of a progressive Scotland.

If raising taxes for services is seen as political suicide now, why would it be any different under independence or Devo-Plus-Max-Super-Unleaded?

Local government cannot survive under this nonsensical funding regime and an urgent consensus on change is needed. In the meantime, governments could at least have made the tax less regressive.

They could have put in more bands so the rich - who benefit most from the freeze - would pay a fair share.

Scottish government can be unseemly shy about using the powers it has already got.

Instead the least well-off pay the premium in fees for services. The proportion of money councils raise through charges is rising and now stands at almost 60 per cent relative to council tax income.

It is hard to reconcile all this with the welcome universal provision of free prescriptions and free personal care in Scotland. Why would you do that and then force people to pay for other essential services?

Westminster's Con-Dem austerity attack on public services and working people is of course to blame.
But Holyrood has choices and it has made some damaging ones. Some 39,300 jobs have been cut from Scottish local government since 2007.

With 49,500 jobs lost across public services, it is easy to see that local government takes the biggest hit.

But it is not the only victim. The NHS has lost 4,000 jobs. Colleges - the route to a skilled workforce - have lost 3,600 jobs, disproportionately affecting women. Police staff cuts take cops off the beat and close control centres and stations. The new "cheaper" national force imposes a one-size-fits-all strategy across Scotland, damaging local community relations.

People did not elect a host of politicians claiming to be left of centre to merely pass on these cuts.
The launch of the People's Assembly Scotland in January sent out that message loud and clear. It brought together a refreshingly wide cross-section of people, united in their opposition to austerity.

The recall meeting on March 29 will take things a step further, setting up structures and planning campaigns.

The task is enormous. We have to talk beyond ourselves and reach out to convince communities there is an alternative. The mass anger that brings change is still not there. We have work to do to show people that the money for decent services exists, it is just in the wrong place. And if we can create that justified anger, we then need to channel it into the confidence to act.

For those who doubt whether such a wide coalition can deliver a cogent fight back, they should look at the lesson of Edinburgh in 2011-12.

The privatisation of 4,000 council jobs and services was beaten off by a united campaign by unions, the trades union council, communities and activist groups.

It was beaten off by forming alliances at the grass roots but also at the political level with Labour and SNP burying the hatchet to act together to overthrow the plans. It brought political change in the council.

That fight was a unique event arising from unique circumstances. But it shows it can be done.

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