Monday, 28 February 2011

The Council closes its ears

I blogged last week about the demonstration at Lambeth Town Hall to protest against Labour’s draconian budget. One point I forgot to mention, which is perhaps most important of all, is the way the Council used the protest as an excuse for barring all deputations.

This was completely unreasonable and undemocratic.

Some forty community groups had given prior notice that they wished to make formal deputations to the council to defend threatened services or jobs. The names and addresses of the members of these deputations had been registered by Council officials and they were scheduled to speak at the start of the Council debate. The idea that ordinary electors have a right to put their case to the Council before decisions are made is one of the fundamental principles of local democracy.

However, the Council chose to close their ears. First they vacated the Council Chamber and held their meeting in another room. For half an hour, delegations waited in the Council Antechamber, expecting to be summoned in at any minute to present their case. But eventually a Lambeth officer came out to inform them that the Council had voted to sit in closed session and not to receive them.

This is scandalous. On the most controversial issue for many years, the council opted to do its business without any input or oversight from the public who they claim to represent. This means that major changes to the way things work in this area have been made without either seeking or listening to the views of any of the users or employees of the threatened services.

For example, Lambeth will lose its hard-working park wardens, despite 3000 petitions against the measure and opposition from a local MP. The delegation from the Lambeth Parks and Green Spaces Forum, like the others, was not invited to share their views.

The Council will blame the protestors for making it unsafe to receive the delegations, but this is utterly disingenuous – the delegations weren’t just angry people off the street, they were citizens who had given their personal details and officially registered in order to present their case in standard democratic fashion. They had a right to be heard and the Council had an obligation to respect that right.

One of the thwarted delegates summed up the Council’s actions aptly in their entry to the members’ attendance book: ‘Today, democracy died’.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Hundreds protest council budget

On Wednesday night around 300 protesters lobbied Lambeth councillors to vote against the Labour-led budget. The demonstration was organised by a wide coalition of groups in the borough, including public service and voluntary sector workers facing redundancy, disabled people, youth workers, pensioners and others who rely on the continuation of vital services.

As the scale of the protest became clear, the councillors retreated to an adjoining room to vote through the cuts while demonstrators occupied the council chamber and held our own People’s Assembly.

It was an impressive example of people power. The scale of the demonstration and the enormous support from people passing by will have sent a potent message to the council, and perhaps also to Parliament.

But the draconian budget was passed all the same and now we face a long, hard struggle to protect vital services in the face of massively reduced budgets.

What is getting cut?
  • More than 800 of the council's 3,500 jobs
  • The entire park ranger service
  • The school crossing patrol service, serving 24 schools
  • Durning, Waterloo, Carnegie and Minet libraries, plus two mobile libraries
  • Youth clubs, adventure playgrounds and the Young and Safe programme, which combats youth crime
  • All but one public toilet facility
  • Regeneration, management and repair on housing estates
  • Adult social care and discretionary freedom passes for adults with mental health problems
  • Street cleaning and repairs
  • The noise nuisance service
  • The Faith Engagement Programme
What is the alternative?
  • Bring the failing Lambeth Living ALMO (the external housing management firm) back in house, saving millions
  • Cut all senior management pay – the chief executive earns £270k a year, enough to staff an entire library!
  • Reduce council fuel bills by making our schools, libraries and other buildings more energy efficient
  • Reduce the millions spent on expensive private-sector consultants
  • Use council reserves to reduce the impact of the front-loading of the cuts and allow time to make improvements
  • Cut down on glossy PR and council spin
  • Work more closely with other public sector bodies to cut admin costs

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Protect public services!

These are dark days in Lambeth. The Council is facing an £80 million cut over three years in its funding from central government. On Monday, the cabinet presented next year’s budget for the borough. It’s brutal.

The damage includes

  • Scrapping Lambeth’s excellent park ranger service
  • Scrapping the school crossing patrols which current serve 24 schools
  • Cutting cleaning and maintenance of our streets and estates
  • Closing public toilets
  • Withdrawing freedom passes for adults with mental health problems
  • Reducing all council services, including parks, libraries, waste management and noise nuisance services
  • The loss of up to 1,000 jobs

Labour did spectacularly well in this area in May’s local elections, primarily because this is a community that cares about old-fashioned concepts such as social justice and the imperative to care for the least well-off, and – in their ignorance in my view – many voters felt that Labour was the party most likely to meet these demands. Well, now we all need to hold Labour to account and make sure they stand up for these values.

Everyone accepts the administration is in a difficult position, but nevertheless there are choices, and the ones being made are not good ones. First, the Labour group is reverting to its characteristic unilateralism. We need the public to be involved in informed debate, yet Labour’s efforts at ‘consultation’ have been characteristically vacuous, with all key decisions being made in private.

It is a revealing insight into Labour’s attitudes locally that the only service that they’re seeking to protect is the police – sure, crime’s an issue in these parts, but aren’t jobs, schools, care services and a clean environment at least as important?

Rather than cutting vital services and precious jobs the Council could make savings by:

  • Cutting senior pay for top council executives
  • Reducing the millions spent on expensive private-sector consultants
  • Cutting down on glossy PR and council spin
  • Reducing council fuel bills by making our schools, libraries and other buildings more energy efficient
  • Working more closely with other public sector bodies to cut admin costs

Social care should be prioritised. That’s our red line. The Greens would make no cuts that reduced care for older people, people with mental illnesses, children and other vulnerable people. We would also not dispose of assets such as community centres and libraries, which we will never be able to buy back. It’s better to run on a shoe-string for a while.

A broad campaign against these cuts is well underway. You can sign the petition to protect our park rangers here

, and at 4pm on Friday 11th February there’ll be a sit-in protest in Herne Hill to save our lollipop men and women.

The next big demonstration will be outside the full council meeting in Brixton on the evening of 23rd February – do try to make it. Check out Lambeth Save our Services for up-to-date information.