On Saturday, February 7, a demonstration organised by the Public Services Alliance (PSA) is taking place in Gateshead from West Street to a rally at the Civic Centre against the cuts to Gateshead Council services.
The local authority is proposing to close five libraries, libraries which provide the focus for many elderly people and parents with young children who use the services regularly. It also plans to close some leisure centres and reduce the hours of others. It is proposing to totally dismantle the irreplaceable home support service for older people in Gateshead which helps them maintain their independence and safety, prevents hospital admissions, and indeed at times saves lives.
The demonstration is also protesting at the proposed closure of acute mental health beds at the Tramwell unit in Gateshead which the Northumbria Tyne and Wear Mental Health Trust is currently “consulting” on. This closure is being presented as the only option and would mean that patients and relatives in the future would be forced to travel long distances for in-patient treatment.
Also on February 7, the Save Our Fire Station campaign is holding a march in Sunderland against the closure of three fire stations: Sunderland Central, Gosforth in Newcastle and Wallsend in North Tyneside. This march and rally is ahead of a meeting of Tyne and Wear Fire Authority which is looking to save cash over the next three years following £8.8m of government cuts.
Most local authority funding comes from central government, with only about a quarter raised locally through council tax on local residential and business properties. What this local taxation hides is that the government has the responsibility to meet the needs of every community and central government taxes people in every community and workplace via income tax, corporation tax, purchase tax (VAT) and national insurance. It distributes this funding via its local authorities through what it describes as a “government grant”. Yet responsibility lies with government on behalf of society to provide modern public services for all the people who live and work in every part of the country. In distributing this central funding, the government present this funding to local authorities as a “grant” as if it is a “cost and burden” to the national treasury. The pretext is given of doing away with “big government” and the “nanny state” and other such pronouncements. “Big government” must be downsized to those of the 1930s to remove the “burden on business initiative” the favourite argument of the ruling circles runs these days.
Over the last five years, the Coalition government, far from taking up its responsibility for local authority funding of public services, has taken what has been described as a “sledgehammer” to the budgets of local authorities by reducing the government “grant” which has led to unprecedented cuts wrecking whole swathes of public services. At the same time, money is still diverted into “capital budgets” which are serviced out of what is left of the council revenue. These “capital budgets” serve the big corporations and their vast profits for “town re-generation” schemes and so on. These are schemes which sometimes spend billions of pounds in the pursuit of attracting “inward investment” of the monopolies which serve the rich at the expense of more human-centred public services which are being cut backand underfunded. For example, in Gateshead Council’s Medium Term Strategy 2015-2018 it shows it spent £60 million in 2014 on capital projects but the report points out, “The Council cannot use any capital resources to fund revenue expenditure, but revenue resources can be used to fund capital costs.” Education services, fire services, police services, and other services wholly or partially funded by councils are everywhere facing savage cuts in the name of “efficiency” savings. This is similar to the way that the NHS Trusts are facing “financial crisis” following cuts in their budgets, whilst the Coalition continues the big lie that the NHS is “protected” from cuts.
According to the April 2013 report of the Local Government Association, Councils were then “half way through a scheduled 40 per cent cut in funding from central government”, having cut £10 billion of a projected £20 billion over five years from local authoritybudgets. This has led to the closure of schools, care homes, libraries, community centres, transport schemes, sports facilities and many other vital services all over the country, often described as “soft options”! These sledgehammer cuts have continued under the fraudulent “austerity” agenda, cutting to the bone even vital council services that are the statutory obligations of government and local government such as those connected with child protection and adult care, social services and so on. For example, 59,000 jobs were cut from the North East council services in this period. South Tyneside Council had cut 1,200 jobs and £75 million by 2012 and cut £23 million from adult care by 2013. Similar cuts took place with other councils. Gateshead Council had cut £90.6 million by 2014.
It is reported that this year the government tried to claim that the amount councils can spend “taking into account other resources, including business rates” will only “fall on average by 1.8%”. This is a trick to hide the truth because the “other resources” include the ring-fenced Better Care Fund and an expectation that councils use what reserves they have and sell off council property. The Local Government Association calculates a figure excluding council tax and part of the Better Care Fund which it does not think will go to councils, and it reckons that funding is going to fall by an average of 8.8% next year. Already, Manchester recently announced a “consultation” on the scale of the 2015-2017 cuts with a cut of “£55.24million from next year’s budget, rising to a possible total of £70.22million over the next two years”.
South Tyneside Council has said that its target is a cut of £22 million for this year. By the end of 2015/16, it is estimated that Gateshead Council’s core grant funding will have reduced by £59m (36%) from 2010. This equates to an approximate £300 per head reduction in government funding over the period. In December last year, Scottish local authorities whose “grant” has been cut were told they would get funding of almost £10.85bn in return for freezing council tax for the eighth year in a row – in other words providing a financial penalty to stop Scotland exercising sovereignty over its council tax. Councils in Wales have been told they will get £146m less in 2015-16 from the Welsh government, an overall cut of 3.4% on this year.
The demonstrations which are taking place in the North East of England this weekend are part of building the resistance to the wrecking of public services. They are not falling prey to the claim that one service is more valuable than another but are opposing all the cuts and resulting job losses. They are affirming that there is an alternative and that these are our communities, our public services, and that the rights of all must be defended!