The agenda of the meeting is long and complicated. The 54 voting members of the council will be making decisions that affect everyone in the city, but most citizens are unaware of the meeting taking place. Of those who are, I imagine most have not read the documents, or managed to grasp the essential issues. I’m a highly educated person, with a frankly abnormal interest in the workings of local government, and I think I will struggle to follow the proceedings in the meeting.
I had hoped to try and spell out the key issues in this post, but I am hampered by the fact that the amendments to the budget from the three political groups have not yet been published on the council website (as I write at 10am, six hours before the meeting begins). I don’t know if councillors have seen them, but I think it’s ridiculous that the public are denied access to the information we need to form an opinion, let alone have an influence.
Two of the parties have issued press releases about their amendments. The Labour group’s press release describes one effect of their amendments as being to “reverse cuts to social care”, exactly the same wording as is used by the Greens in proposing an increase in council tax by 4.75%.
However, none of the amendments mentioned by Labour actually touch the major cuts to adult social care that will take place if the budget goes through as proposed by the Policy and Resources Committee (where Labour and Conservative councillors combined to strip out the extra council tax rise suggested by the Greens).
I assume (though I can’t be sure until the amendments are officially published) that the cuts to social care they refer to are the proposals to reduce the budget for services to children with disabilities by £68,000 and divert £41,000 of school funding into this area. I agree that families with disabled children cannot afford to have their services cut, but I think it is misleading of Labour to present a change to less than 0.05% of the council’s budget as “reversing cuts to social care”.
The Conservative amendments, as described by them, make similarly minimal changes to the budget proposals. In common with Labour, they propose to reverse the cut to the respite care budget (though they identify this as amounting to £84,000, a figure I cannot find in the latest budget papers at all), to reverse the cut to community and voluntary sector grants, to retain the subsidy for Able and Willing and to cut funding to services for travellers.
Obviously, I don’t agree that respite care, community grants or supported employment should be cut. But I am horrified at the way the bulk of the job and service cuts in the proposed budget have been completely sidelined by the opposition parties.
The Green Party have not yet announced any amendments, other than to say that they will be proposing the 4.75% council tax increase again this afternoon.
This proposal, the only one that even comes close to addressing the core issues at stake, is unfortunately bound to be defeated at the council meeting.
For the non-obsessed citizen, all the arcane procedures, all the high drama of last minute amendments and surprise manoeuvres are impenetrable, boring and irrelevant. All the puff pieces about how heroic rescues have been made by this or that party are pretty distasteful.
For some of the citizens with learning disabilities who today can get friendly, helpful support with finding and keeping a job from fairly-paid, experienced and dedicated council staff, the issue is very simple. From April, that support will start to be withdrawn. Over the next few years, those staff will lose their jobs. Their knowledge, skill and experience will be lost to our community.
For some of the older citizens who today have the option of moving into residential care homes paid for from our common funds when they need to, the issue is very simple. From April, there will be fewer residential places available because there will be £1,150,000 less to pay for them.
For some of the people with learning disabilities and older people who today enjoy a sense of friendship and community at council-funded day centres, the issue is very simple. From April, their centres will be at risk of closure, their friendships will be disrupted and threatened.
For most people in the city, politics is not a game. Most people know – and the behaviour of our councillors over the last few months has demonstrated this rather dismally – that whatever politicians say, in the end they will sell you down the river if it brings them some glory.
I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s essay Three Guineas at the moment. I’m working on a collaborative banner for International Women’s Day, featuring a famous quote from that work – “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
Woolf talks about the choices facing educated women in the early 20th century, as the opportunity to participate in political and public life opened up for the first time. She reminds her readers that women have achieved great things despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of access to the structures of power and privilege designed by and for men.
She talks of “the four great teachers of the daughters of educated men – poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties”. I apologise for quoting at great length, but I think this advice remains relevant and pertinent for anyone – local councillors, for example – who hopes to make a difference in this deeply dysfunctional society:
“By poverty is meant enough money to live upon. That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.
By chastity is meant that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing […]
By derision – a bad word, but once again the English language is much in need of new words – is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise. Directly badges, orders or degrees are offered you, fling them back in the giver’s face.
By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. Directly the seducers come with their seductions to bribe you into captivity, tear up the parchments; refuse to fill up the forms.”
At the Brighton & Hove Independent Big Debate last night, I made a clumsy attempt to express my frustration at the attitude of local Labour politicians towards the proposal to increase council tax by 4.75%. Here’s what I was trying to say:
I live in a small (Band C) terraced house in Brighton. We pay £110 a month in Council tax.
Our council tax contributes to paying the wages of people who:
- Collect refuse and recycling
- Clean the city’s streets and beaches
- Maintain our parks
- Make sure building work is done safely
- Design road schemes to improve traffic flow and safety
- Handle planning applications
- Monitor food safety and trading standards
- Look after and create the excellent local museums
- Run a network of libraries
- Conserve the Royal Pavilion
- Organise the school admissions process
- Find people homes when they are in dire straits
- Publish information about what the council does, and ask us what we think of it
- Organise elections
- Allocate grant funding to community and voluntary organisations
- Run care services for elderly and disabled people
- Support children and families in difficulty
- Look after children when their parents can’t
- Promote the city as a worldwide tourist destination
- Arrange free bus transport for pensioners
- Manage parking schemes
- Commission essential bus routes that need subsidy
- Process housing benefit and council tax reduction claims
And no doubt many other things I haven’t thought of.
I’d say that I’m getting excellent value for my £110 a month.
But paying taxes is more than just a way of purchasing these services. In return for my taxes, I get a miraculous whole that is worth more than the considerable sum of all these different parts – I get to live in a city that works.
Whether or not I ever use the services my taxes help to pay for, I benefit from the fact that they exist, that there is a safety net for everyone who lives here – whoever they are – and that thought and care is being put into keeping everything functioning.
And because I am a citizen of this place, I get to have a say in how it works. None of the services I’ve listed is perfect – nor is our system of democracy. Trying to have a say is often frustrating.
But when was the last time your local supermarket consulted you on anything? How can insurance companies be held accountable for their decisions? How much of the money local residents spend each year ends up in the pockets of shareholders outside the city or even the country? (and how many of them go to great lengths to avoid paying tax at all?)
Local public services are under a ferocious attack. The difficulty of balancing Brighton & Hove Council’s budget is not down to poor choices by the Green administration. It’s caused by deep cuts in government funding, services already operating at full stretch, and increasing needs due to an ageing population and worsening inequality.
Frankly, increasing council tax by 4.75% is the least the council could do in the face of this onslaught. It wouldn’t reverse all the cuts included in the proposed budget. It’s not a revolutionary blow for the masses against the relentless pressure of the coalition’s austerity project. It’s also really not an outrageous raid on the hard-pressed wallets of Warren Morgan’s constituents in Whitehawk.
Surely any Labour Party member worth their salt can see that the interests of Whitehawk residents are not well served by presiding over the destruction of the social services on which many of them rely (all the while claiming credit for the ability to “make tough choices”)?
It’s a very mild stand in defence of basic social-democratic ideas. It’s a chance to make the case for the ragged remnants of our public services.
Why is the Labour Party leaving that task to the Greens?