At Labour women’s conference 2018 Dawn Butler said that it is ‘better to break the law than break the poor’. This is misguided, writes Marian Craig
As councils across the country come back to work after the festive season, they will be looking ahead and planning their budgets for 2019. Despite warm words from Theresa May at the most recent Conservative party conference, it is clear that after eight painful years – austerity is far from over for local authorities.
Almost 80 Labour council leaders have written to communities secretary James Brokenshire calling for a planned £1.3bn cut to the revenue support grant to be reversed. The revenue support grant, sometimes known as the ‘block grant’, is an essential source of funding for local authorities as they have few other means of raising revenue. Cutting this grant cuts off the already critically low oxygen supply for local government.
In full knowledge of the potentially disastrous impact, the stubborn Tory government is planning to ahead with the cuts. This is nothing new.
Since 2010, local authority budgets have been halved in real terms. Earlier this year, Northamptonshire county council became the first casualty of this ideological project – as they were forced into an extreme regime of cuts to keep the council alive – but there are many more local authorities up and down the country currently on the brink of collapse.
This is a dire situation – one that requires action – but setting illegal budgets is not the answer.
Councils are required by law to set out their spending priorities within the budgets given to them by central government. This means difficult decisions have to be made and of course these will never be popular. But refusing this responsibility will only end up sending these important decisions back to London.
We must ask ourselves whether we would prefer a budget set by a Labour council, sensitive to local needs, or a budget set by Whitehall which takes a sledgehammer to all but the most essential services.
Making impossible promises of a ‘no cuts’ budget may be popular with activists who are rightly keen to see an end to austerity, but in reality, as Neil Kinnock famously said to the 1985 Labour party conference, ‘you can’t play politics with people’s jobs, homes and services.’
Let us not forget too, that the cuts from this cruel Conservative government are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest; those who have more pressing priorities than attending monthly constituency Labour party meetings. Ensuring their family has enough to eat and a place to stay for the night, for example. Do we not owe it to them to ensure we use our positions of privilege to set budgets which prioritise support for these people, rather than handing over our councils’ financial powers to a government that is indifferent to their needs?
For me, this risk is far too great.
So instead of calling for your councillors to set an illegal or ‘needs-based’ budget this coming financial year, encourage them to sign up to the Local Government Association Labour’s ‘Breaking Point’ campaign and sign the petition against the proposed cuts to the revenue support grant.
Then let’s get on the doorstep to campaign for a Labour government which will ensure our local authorities get the funding they need and deserve.
Marian Craig is Chair of the Young Fabians Devolution and Local Government Network. She writes in a personal capacity and tweets @MarianCraig
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