Crunch time for Brighton & Hove Greens

I was invited to speak at the Green Left and Green Trade Unionists group fringe meeting at Green Party conference last night. The meeting was about how Greens in local government can fight austerity, and naturally they wanted to hear about what had happened here in Brighton.

I only had 5 minutes to speak, and couldn’t fit in everything I wanted to say, so here is a kind of extended remix.

What has been the local impact of the Green administration’s decision to balance the budget over the last three years?

I think there are four main aspects of this:

  • The direct impact of cuts to the council budget
  • The impact of cuts in housing benefit, which is administered by the council
  • The danger of privatisation as the logical next step, once “efficiency savings” become impossible
  • The damaging impact on the ability of people and organisations in the city to make alliances and fight back against the cuts

Cuts to council budget

It’s true that Brighton & Hove has so far seen no big ticket service cuts such as closure of branch libraries or children’s centres. As far as I’m aware, there have been no compulsory redundancies so far at the council.

You might say, in fact, that the Greens are doing a pretty good job of being a Labour council, which of course explains the state of constant fury in which the local Labour Party finds itself.

But there are two large groups of people in the city who have been directly affected by the council’s budget cuts.

The first group is the people who work for the council.

Over the last two years, 250 posts have been lost from the council’s workforce. Those left behind are dealing with increased pressure of work and uncertainty due to massive restructuring, not to mention a continuing pay freeze.

Obviously, this has an impact on their ability to deliver high quality services. We have seen the Connexions service redesigned, with staffing cut by more than half, the catering contract for the museums outsourced and staff transferred to a private employer, and the loss of our beloved mobile library service.

As an audience member eloquently pointed out on this week’s Question Time (minute 53:30), local government workers have paid the price of George Osborne’s so-called recovery – in wage cuts and job losses.

The second – larger and more vulnerable – group is people previously entitled to Council Tax Benefit.

Like most other councils in the country, Brighton & Hove has passed on to residents the majority of the 10% council tax benefit funding cut. Everyone of working age now has to pay some council tax [PDF], up to an initial cap of £3 per week (this will be increasing in the coming years).

This change affects 17,000 households in the city. The impact is not evenly distributed; in 5 wards, over 30% of households are affected, with the highest proportion being 42% in East Brighton.

These are, of course, the poorest people in the city – unemployed, sick and disabled people, single parents. Over 7,000 of those households include children, including nearly 600 households with disabled children. 20% of the adults affected are disabled.

Housing benefit cuts

14% of households in the city – that’s also (and not coincidentally) just under 17,000 households – have been affected by one or more of the housing benefit changes introduced since April 2011, namely the major cuts and changes to Local Housing Allowance for private sector tenants, the bedroom tax and the overall benefit cap.

Their average loss of household income due to these changes alone is £1,500 a year [PDF].

Many of these people are also affected by the changes to disability benefits and the horrific sanctions and workfare schemes being imposed by the DWP.

Through the Brighton Bedroom Tax Victims Support Group, I’ve been hearing first hand from local people about how they have been affected by all this. Here are just two examples:

“My home used to be a safe space – now I’m frightened of what the next post will bring.”

“With a starting income of £71 income support, the bedroom tax and council tax takes off £26 per week.  After paying direct debits for utilities like gas, electricity, water and telephone etc. I am left with £12.50 per week to live on, to cover food, [transport] and any other thing I might need.”

We put some of these stories together in May and presented them to the Housing Committee. Later, we took some more along to a meeting with Jugal Sharma, the Director of Housing.

Partly as a result of our lobbying, Brighton & Hove Council has agreed not to evict people for Bedroom Tax arrears. However, this doesn’t actually do much to ease the anxiety people feel or prevent them being pressured to pay.

This is the context in which Brighton & Hove Council is asking people to find £3 a week for Council Tax.

No wonder people are not paying it – they simply can’t afford to.

But in contrast to the headline-grabbing Bedroom Tax policy, the council is pursuing Council tax arrears aggressively, sending out court summonses to people who owe just a few pounds, with the threat of £100 extra court costs.

Privatisation

Brighton & Hove Council has done what it can to weather the storm by shedding jobs, reorganising departments and minimising the number of people affected by benefit cuts.

I’d say this last aim is highly dubious, given the nature of the wider cuts and the way the Tories have framed the debate. The effect has been to concentrate the impact onto people already being hit hard.

But there’s not much further they can go in that direction. More cuts are heading our way and we now hear rumours that the council is looking at privatising health prevention services like the sexual health clinic and even core council services like Adult Social Care.

This is not a huge surprise, given the direction of travel so far, but it’s still deeply shocking from a Green administration.

Alliances

For anyone elected to public office, it’s important to keep asking “Whose side are you on? Who do you represent?”

It seems to me that the Green group in Brighton & Hove have listened too much to senior officers and not enough to front line staff.

They have squandered the chance their Living Wage policy gave them to make strong alliances with the trade unions at the council, leading to this year’s disastrous dispute with the Cityclean workers.

As campaigners against cuts and austerity in Brighton & Hove, we should be able to feel we’ve got some of our people on the inside, but (by and large) we don’t.

The position of Green Party members in local campaigns has been very difficult – they’ve found themselves on the defensive and unable to act as an effective bridge between council and activists.

I think the confrontational tone of the anti-cuts movement also contributed to a collective failure to open a real dialogue when the Green administration first took office.

With the establishment of the People’s Assembly in Brighton, we are only now beginning to rebuild some strength and confidence.

The 2014-15 budget is crunch time. There are no more efficiency savings to be squeezed from council staff. To keep balancing the budget, we are now looking at harsh service cuts or privatisation.

More than ever, we urgently need creative dialogue between anti-cuts voices inside and outside the council.

We need to find a way to support and work with those councillors who are not prepared to vote through another cuts budget, so that their stand represents something more than a split or personality clash, and indicates the spirit and strength of opposition to the onslaught faced by thousands of residents of our city.

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What is bedroom tax for?

I spoke at a meeting in Hollingdean last night, on behalf of the fledgeling Brighton Bedroom Tax Victims Support group.  This is roughly what I said:

I’m speaking on behalf of the bedroom tax victims support group. We’re trying to bring people together, gather information about the impact of bedroom tax on people in B&H, and present that to the council to give victims a stronger united voice. We’ve put posters up round the estates and people have been contacting us. We’ve heard some heartbreaking stories.

What is bedroom tax for?

Is it to make fairer use of limited social housing?

No, because we are not talking about unused rooms. We are talking about families like the people we have heard from in Brighton, who have taken in two of their grandchildren after their daughter died, and need a bedroom for when their third grandchild comes to visit. How is it fairer to disrupt those children’s lives yet further?

Is it to save money on benefits?

No, because we are not talking about people living the high life on free money from taxpayers. We are talking about people who are just scraping by already, on money that is just enough to keep body and soul together.

Like the tenant we have heard from in Brighton whose serious illness means he is no longer able to get out and live the active life he used to in the community. But at least he has a flat adapted to meet his needs, above a shop and with supportive neighbours. How will it save money to make him move away from that support network into a place that will need expensive adaptations?

How will it save money to push people into debt, depression and isolation?

What is it for then?

It’s to change the way we think – about each other, and about housing.

The tories hope the bedroom tax is the final blow to the idea of housing as a public service, the idea that everyone has a right to a secure and decent home.

Instead, they want us to think of social housing as some kind of reward for the deserving poor – something that can be given and taken away according to how ‘well’ people behave.

And they want us to think about people on benefits as scroungers, selfishly hoarding houses while other families are living in overcrowded conditions.

What can we do?

We can remember – and remind the people in power – that everyone has a right to a home, and to a private family life. Housing is not about fitting people into boxes like jigsaw pieces, it is about people having a stable base for their lives.

We can share our stories and listen to each other – bedroom tax victims are not stereotypes, they are real people. People who have lives, families, responsibilities, neighbours and friends in their communities.

We can support each other to break down the resentment and fear many people are feeling.

We can demand that our elected representatives actually represent us, support us and stand alongside us.

If anyone wants to get involved in the support group, please comment below – I won’t make your comment visible if you don’t want me to, but I will contact you by email.