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Tuesday 16 February 2016

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Sheffield People's Budget conference agrees fighting no cuts alternative

The Sheffield No-Cuts People's Budget conference held on Saturday 13th February met against the backdrop of proposals from the Labour-controlled city council to make 400 redundancies and £28 million in service cuts at its budget-setting meeting on March 4th.

The conference, initiated by the PCS civil servants' union Sheffield Town Committee, was supported by the local Trades Council, GMB union and People's Assembly as well as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), and was attended by 45 activists from several trade unions and campaigns.

Marion Lloyd (PCS), a Sheffield resident and member of the union's national executive committee, opened the meeting by explaining that the Tory government was moving the Northern Powerhouse to London by closing her BIS (Business, Innovation and Skills) office, costing 250 jobs, on top of 500 jobs going with the closure of the city's tax office.

Can't wait until 2020

Marion said that it was the need for a city-wide response to all these central and local government redundancies that had prompted the PCS Town Committee to initiate the No-Cuts People's budget campaign.

Chris Baugh (PCS assistant general secretary) exposed the Tory austerity agenda and called on all unions to take solidarity action with the junior doctors; and Helen Davies from Barnet council Unison explained how their strike action against outsourcing had built the confidence of council workers to fight the cuts.

Les Wray brought official support from the Trades Council, saying: "Enough is enough. We can't wait till 2020. There'll be nothing left".

Neil Carbutt (South Yorkshire Fire Brigades Union secretary) explained how the South Yorkshire Fire authority had quadrupled its reserves since 2008 by cutting the number of firefighters by over a third and shutting fire stations down, and now wanted to reduce fire control staff from five to only three on each shift.

Benefits, transport and housing

Shirley Frost (Benefits Justice Campaign) said that 33,000 of the poorest people in Sheffield are affected by the bedroom tax and the demand to pay at least 23% of the council tax.

Speaking for the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders, Sharron Milsom said that their two year campaign, including direct action, had won back travel concessions for the disabled and elderly, but that the Passenger Authority now wanted to increase child fares despite a £2 million underspend last year which it has put into its reserves.

Paul Page (Defend Council Housing) spoke about the Tory's Housing and Planning Bill which will reduce social housing even further and said that Labour councils should resist the bill by a programme of council house building at truly affordable rents.

Uniting the campaigns in a People's Budget

All these campaign issues are incorporated in the ten-point Alternative Budget that Jeremy Short (Socialist Party member and Sheffield TUSC agent) proposed to the conference. Jeremy outlined a People's Budget that would not only reverse redundancies and service cuts but also fund 100% bedroom tax and council tax relief for benefit claimants and bring the waste management service (bins and recycling), currently mis-managed by Veolia, back in house. It also instructs the council to use borrowing powers to build 1,000 new council homes a year until 2020.

How will this be paid for? Jeremy said that at a council budget consultation event, Sheffield Labour council leader Julie Dore had accused "those talking of using reserves as making political mischief". Now, lo and behold, we find that the council is proposing to raid the reserves to plug the authority's pension fund deficit by £80 million. This includes leaving only £1,000 in the PFI reserves which we had been told could not be touched because they were "earmarked"! Unfortunately though, the council still won't use reserves to not sack 400 workers or not make £28 million of service cuts. Why? Because it is not prepared to fight the Tory government.

Financing the alternative

Our alternative budget would be financed by saving £8 million on redundancy payments (because of no redundancies) and diverting £27 million from the PFI reserves. This one year of No Cuts would give the council time to build support amongst city trade unions and local communities and link up with other local authorities to present a united front against the Tories, to force them to concede more government funding or force them out of office altogether.

The conference agreed the ten-point alternative budget (below) which we will publicise prior to our lobby of the budget setting council meeting on 4th March. PCS will also be organising a Sheffield 'March for Jobs' linking up the fight against redundancies in the civil service and local council.


Proposed Amendment to Sheffield City Council Budget 2016-17

1. This amendment is designed to implement a legal balanced budget for 2016-17(1), but one which involves no cuts to services and increases spending in some areas. The aim is to reverse the proposed cuts for one year to enable Sheffield to mount a campaign with other authorities to force the government to restore the previous levels of funding to local councils.

2. The council will make no redundancies during 2016-17, a saving of £8.2 millions.

3. The proposed £27.6 million cut to Portfolio Services will be scrapped.

4. Funding to the Discretionary Housing Payment Fund will be increased by £2.4 million, effectively ending the 'Bedroom Tax' in Sheffield.

5. Funding to Council Tax Support will be increased by a further £5 millions to give 100% relief to those on benefit who have been forced to pay 23% of Council Tax.

6. The household waste management contract currently held by Veolia will be brought back in-house. This will be at least cost-neutral and may result in significant savings even after penalty payments are made(2).

7. £26.8 million from 'earmarked' reserves will be used to fund the reversal of cuts and increased spending. This money will be diverted from the £80.1 million proposed pension deficit payment which has been drawn partly from the earmarked reserves for PFI future expenditure(3).

8. Council representatives on the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority are instructed to propose the use of reserves to reverse cuts, including the loss of eight control room staff. Similarly, representatives on the Combined Authority Transport Committee are instructed to vote for the use of reserves to reverse the 10p increase in child fares and restore free travel for senior citizens.

9. The Cabinet is instructed to bring forward proposals to make maximum use of Housing Revenue Account funds and borrowing powers to increase the council house building programme to 1,000 a year from 2017-18 to 2020-21, making necessary adjustments to the 30-year plan.

10. The Cabinet is instructed to bring forward proposals to develop a national campaign with other local authorities to pressure the government to reverse the cuts in central government funding for Sheffield and other councils and provide relief funding for those authorities that have had to deplete their reserves or adopt other temporary budget balancing measures to maintain vital public services.

Notes:

(1) As set out below, the revised budget is balanced as follows:

Increased Spending: Reverse Portfolio cuts - £27.6m; Discretionary Housing Payments - £2.4m; Council Tax Support - £5.0m. Total - £35.0m

Financed By: No redundancy payments - £8.2m; Diversion from PFI reserves - £26.8m. Total - £35.0m

(2) In 2014-15 £27.9m was paid to Veolia. GMB estimate that an in-house service would cost £25 millions, so savings would be made even after penalty payments for early ending of the contract.

(3) Total reserves are to be reduced by £53.6 millions in 2016-17, including a £28.3 million reduction in the PFI reserve (leaving only £1,000). The council budget statement says "this is primarily as a result of the planned temporary use to fund an early pension deficit payment to deliver savings for 2017/18 to 2019/20".