HAVING WON ITS epic battle with the NUM, the Thatcher government swiftly renewed its attacks on local councils seen as bastions of resistance to the overarching project of shrinking the welfare state. By 1986 her Tory regime had succeeded in abolishing the Greater London Council and Britain’s other metropolitan authorities, soon after the collapse in all but two councils (Lambeth and Liverpool) of opposition to ratecapping, which dramatically curbed local government autonomy by restricting councils’ capacity to raise revenue.
Thatcher’s obsession with the poll tax would help trigger her eventual downfall, but the council tax mechanism that replaced it did nothing to resolve an underlying fiscal challenge for local authorities. While the New Labour years eventually saw some loosening of central government’s purse strings and the restoration of London-wide government, Blair and Brown avoided measures that would have bolstered independent spending powers for councils and instead further centralised power in Whitehall through a regime of shortterm, narrowly focused grants at the same time as spurring further privatisation of services and tying community schools into the Private Finance Initiative.
While Tory-run Barnet’s Thatcherite ideologues may have pioneered the notion of the ‘easy council’, New Labour was also veering towards the ‘commissioning council’, with more and more local services outsourced and a residual core workforce overseeing tendering processes and the management of contracts. The financial crash of 2008 put such visions on hold, but it was no great surprise that the introduction of the public sector pay freeze actually hit council workforces first.
With George Osborne as Chancellor in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition after May 2010, local government was an obvious prime target for cuts, which would often be implemented by Labour councillors who either accepted the mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ in the wake of the massive bailout of the financial sector or couldn’t envisage any prospect of effective resistance. And so for nearly a decade a remorseless assault on local authority services and the workforces that provide them has continued.
Since 2010-11 the core funding from central government to more than 400 local authorities across Britain has been slashed by up to 60%. Precise figures for the scale of cuts already implemented are not readily agreed, but it’s clear that hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared from local authorities in the past eight years with no significant function left untouched. An analysis by Oxford University academics has found that from 2009-17 1,000 ‘registered children’s centres’, or more than 30% of the pre-austerity total, had closed. This is over twice the 14% drop that the government had previously admitted.
Across England, Scotland and Wales at least 449 public libraries had closed between 2011 and the end of last year with some 10,000 (full and part-time) library posts axed. Scores of libraries now operate on the basis of volunteers, while hundreds more have been outsourced with the supposed social enterprise, Greenwich Leisure Limited, now operating 113 libraries across England.
In Hackney, which despite gentrification remains one of Britain’s poorest boroughs, the cuts to council funding from Whitehall since the onset of the austerity regime translate into approximately £130 million or £471 per local resident in lost spending power. In an open letter to Tory Chancellor Philip Hammond, Hackney’s mayor, Phil Glanville, said the council faced another £30 million in cuts over the next three financial years.
Glanville’s letter makes for grim reading as he outlines expected shortfalls: “Areas particularly affected include Special Education Needs (£9m), Adult Social Care Commissioning (£5m)... and Temporary Accommodation where is a shortfall of £10m relative to the amount covered by Housing Benefit.” And this comes in a borough where levels of homelessness have trebled in the past eight years and does not necessarily include the impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit.
Shortly prior to Hammond’s 29th October budget speech, the Local Government Association, ostensibly the collective bipartisan voice for English and Welsh councils, stated that without a volte face by the Chancellor the cut to local councils in financial year 2019-20 would amount to £1.3 billion. At this stage it’s abundantly clear that a yawning cumulative gap of more than £3 billion remains. The social fabric is frayed and the damage may soon become irreparable for a generation.
Given the scale of cuts already inflicted, why no widespread militant revolt? There has certainly been spirited, sometimes successful, local resistance to specific attacks, but attempts to construct sustained, council-wide campaigns against the cuts in general have thus far withered. While some were angered by the position of the Labour leadership in calling upon Labour councils to set lawful budgets, the roots of today’s relative passivity actually lie in the defeats suffered more than 30 years ago.
Until very recently there has been a complete marginalisation of the Labour left in local government with open supporters of Progress frequently in leadership positions. Councillors generally have also become the willing prisoners of senior managements with no interest in erecting roadblocks to the Whitehall juggernaut.
In addition to legislative changes that give central government the power to impose commissioners to take charge of local authorities, the balance of forces is in many respects much worse than in the mid-1980s. Union density in local authorities, though high compared to the private sector, had plunged prior to austerity, and union leaderships are largely unwilling, and often unable, to defy still tighter anti-union legislation, including the notorious 50% ballot threshold at the heart of the 2016 legislation.
Clearly, though, there can and will be local fightbacks as with the current struggle by homecare workers in Birmingham. Party members should do their utmost to offer solidarity and assume a central role in resistance even where this means conflict with Labour-run authorities.
Ultimately, though, the future of local democracy relies on the election of a radical Labour government that is committed both to reversing austerity and drastic reform of tax and funding regimes that would empower councils to play a key role in a project for a fundamental redistribution of wealth and power.