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.”
Over the last month I’ve been spending my Sundays in various Hanover streets, sitting in a drawing of a living room, littering planets around town and dressing cars up as hills and ladybirds. It was lovely – have a look at this Facebook page, this note and (especially) this blog post to find out more about what we did.
Creating the open house made me think about…
I crocheted most of a ladybird costume for a parked car, and roped in friends and family to make the rest of it. It took about two months to make, bringing home to me very directly just how big the cars parked all over our streets are. Each ordinary car occupies around 5 square metres of land.
As well as making big things into small ones, another art work I contributed was a scale model of the solar system. The sun, represented by a balloon, was tied to the top of the open house. The planets, to scale, were ridiculously small and scattered. When our open house was in Scotland Street, the solar system extended as far as North Street towards the south, London Road towards the north-west, and West Drive to the east.
In this model, the Earth is a peppercorn. We are floating through space on a tiny fragment of rock. All the air and water on which life on this planet depends is held within a thin skin on the very surface.
London Road and West Drive sometimes seem to be worlds apart. Making this model reminded me that we all breathe the same air, we are all part of the same ecosystem.
Private property and public space
We didn’t ask permission to set up our open house in the street, nor to make temporary use of the parked cars that form part of the landscape around here.
We were respectful of people’s need to travel, and always removed our decorations from cars if they were needed. If people needed to drive through the streets where we were (a very rare occurrence), we made space for them to do so.
However, our installations did effectively close the streets to traffic for a few hours, thereby opening them up as social, creative and playful spaces.
It made a change from the normal run of things, in which private individuals take control of the public street space, without permission, by lining the streets with parked cars.
What streets are for
I think that in a neighbourhood like Hanover, streets could easily be more than storage spaces for the private vehicles of just over half the residents.
They could be spaces for people to meet, talk, cycle, play, walk, scoot, skate and create. To a large extent, they already are. Whenever something like the Zocalo or the open house project comes along, people in Hanover embrace it.
But whenever a proposal is made to reallocate street space permanently for something other than car parking – for communal bins, for example – there is fierce resistance. Why is this?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we can’t carry on filling up our streets, our city and our planet with cars forever.
Somehow, we have to find a way to work out this knotty issue about private choices which intrude on our fragile shared environment.
It’s not just cars, of course. There is a threat to begin fracking in the Sussex countryside – an idea so breathtakingly foolish that it’s difficult to take seriously. But the energy companies truly seem determined to extract more and more fossil fuels from the Earth, in the face of all the evidence that this is the worst thing we can do. I am pleased to see Hanover residents supporting the resistance to this horrific idea.
But part of shifting towards a low carbon economy will have to be a change in the demand for energy – including for travel.
Our open house was a bit of fun in the May sunshine, but it was also about looking at things differently. How we choose to travel affects our neighbours, not only in Hanover, but all over our tiny peppercorn planet.