The economic crisis has increased the need for leaner and more efficient public services. For the coalition the financial climate is all doom and gloom, but for Labour it can be bright and local. At grassroots level, subject to punishing coalition cuts to the poorest areas, Labour has been learning how to navigate the fiscal quagmire by moving away from orthodoxy to a more flexible approach. We can link our national priorities to this progressive local agenda, which is underpinned by aspiration, social mobility and education, and build on the ‘local’ successes of the last Labour government such as sure start centres, which focused on prevention and early intervention.
I sat tapping away, calculating the latest financial figures before my finance committee meeting. This year Brent, where I am a councillor, is taking out £13.5m from the budget. At this rate I thought to myself, we’ll just end up collecting bins and looking after the elderly!
Local councils are being hounded by the government with the latest town hall budget reductions showing they will fall much harder on areas of high deprivation than those in more prosperous leafy areas. Several Labour-controlled authorities will be hit with a seven per cent fall in their spending power compared to some well-off Tory councils which will see a fall in income of just 1.8 per cent.
The situation is further exacerbated by the increase in demand for services at a time when budgets are thinning out, a concept powerfully visualised by the Local Government Association’s ‘Graph of Doom’, which predicts the spiralling costs of social care could overwhelm all other council services by 2020. Some have even started talking about the ‘Council of Doom’ where libraries, youth centres and maintaining parks are no longer affordable.
But despite the attacks, Labour councils has shown great resilience to the centrally dictated and disproportionate cuts from Whitehall. Cleverly, the coalition has centralised the resources but decentralised the blame. The council tax benefit cut is one such example where the government has reduced funding by 10 per cent and passed on the heavy lifting by getting councils to choose which vulnerable groups to cut from.
In Brent we are making £100m of savings by 2014 and we’ve done this by not only protecting frontline services but by introducing innovative initiatives ranging from our ‘Navigators’ scheme, which will trial an approach to engage with the most excluded individuals and families in Brent hit hardest by the benefit caps to our award winning Supply Chain Project, which matches construction and employment opportunities with local businesses and residents.
The very local is crucial; what works in London will not necessarily work in Newcastle. The identity and character of a local area is crucial, and we can play a critical role in certain arenas and can be something which can help deliver new policies and ideas when resources are scarce. This includes my own work on tackling gangs which I’m leading on in the area where I was born and brought up and where I saw some of the people I grew up with either end up in jail or dead. Through civic pride and identity we can help meet some of our community’s biggest challenges.
An incoming Labour government in 2015 will face similar challenges; it will be strapped for cash for at least two years. So instead of reinventing the wheel Labour should look to its local success stories. Labour councils have been more dynamic and efficient in delivering policies compared to clunky and cumbersome central government. Brent achieved £14m of savings in adult social care, which is similar to the local NHS Trust. Despite the huge budget reduction the council still managed to deliver a better service and successfully move away from high-end expensive care to more preventative social care. Labour nationally can be confident that it can manage the finances and still work hard for social justice as Labour locally has done.
Zaffar Van Kalwala is a councillor in the London borough of Brent. He tweets @TheCouncillor
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