What councils could do in next month's budget-setting meetings...
In the next month or so local councils will be deciding their budgets for 2014-2015, the last full financial year before the general election.
There is no dispute that councils face a dire financial situation. Even the Tory chair of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, has warned that the current funding levels for local councils "will not see us through for very much longer". Such complaints from a Tory politician are hypocritical but they reflect the real crisis facing local council services.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) national steering committee discussed at its January meeting what councils could actually do to meet this crisis.
TUSC believes as its starting point that councils should not meekly accept the cuts to local authority funding made by the Con-Dem government. In the first instance councils have the means to avoid making cuts in their 2014-15 budgets by using their reserves and borrowing powers. This would buy them time to build a campaign to force the government - either this one or the next - to properly fund local government. This stance is one of the core policies of TUSC, which will be supported by all our candidates in the May local elections (see http://www.tusc.org.uk/policy.php ).
But we also believe that councils should use the powers that they have to implement - here and now - policies that would positively improve the position of millions of people struggling to survive in 'austerity Britain'. That would be the way to turn back the austerity offensive and mobilise support for a campaign for more resources for public services.
What councils can do
Listed below are just some of the policies that councils have the legal powers to implement now. Now - not after a general election, or after new legislation is passed, but immediately, today. And that's proven by the fact that at least one council somewhere in Britain has implemented at least one of the policies below in some form in the recent period. It's that which makes the list unique.
But the question is: why couldn't councils implement all of the policies below? And especially the hundred or so Labour-controlled councils? Wouldn't implementing policies which actually positively impact on peoples' lives give a clear example of what difference councils can make - and provide compelling reasons for people to support councillors who were prepared to take a stand in favour of proper funding for local services?
It's not the case that 'the money isn't there' for decent local services. Government funding of local councils is being cut by £7.6bn between 2011 and 2015 (with a further £2.1bn cut planned for 2015-16). Yet Britain's top companies have an estimated cash pile of £750bn accumulated profits which they are refusing to invest. Meanwhile the number of billionaires in Britain rose from 77 in 2012 to 88 last year. The question is not 'is the money there?' but how can a campaign be won for the money to defend and improve public services.
TUSC has organised a conference on Saturday 1st February to prepare for what we aim will be the biggest left-of-Labour trade unionist and socialist challenge in local council elections for generations (see http://www.tusc.org.uk/16879/19-12-2013/come-to-the-tusc-2014-local-elections-conference-on-february-1st )
TUSC will fight these elections on a policy of opposition to all cuts to present council services. But we will also highlight what more councils could do. And that councillors can make a difference - if they are prepared to fight.
Policies councils could implement tomorrow...
- Restore full council tax rebates, to be funded from council reserves not council tax rises, and campaign for government to reimburse councils that do so.
- Bring in free school meals for every primary school pupil.
- Introduce local replacements for the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16-18 year-olds staying on in education.
- Reinstate childcare provision in Sure Start centres where this has been cut and re-open the 550 centres closed since 2010.
- Support parents and teachers who oppose the Con-Dems' enforced academisation of schools by using councils' powers to refuse to issue 'warning notices' against schools that are working to improve their performance.
- Use councils' powers to compulsorily register private landlords and set-up council-run lettings agencies, as the means to tackle repair standards, high rents, over-occupancy, extortionate letting fees etc for private rented homes.
- Build council homes now. By using councils' borrowing powers for capital spending to build council homes, while campaigning for the government to divert its subsidy for private developers to finance a mass programme of public housing.
- Implement the UNISON trade union's ethical care charter to end '15-minute maximum' visiting slots, zero-hour contracts, and unpaid travel time for home care workers.
- Introduce the Living Wage as the minimum wage for council employees and those working for council contractors.
- Use councils' powers to exclude firms that have participated in blacklisting from tendering for public contracts.