After over 30 years of rapid growth in the finance sector we have also seen a reduction of local government power and autonomy.

Through mass media, the public are fed ongoing headlines that ‘there is no money left’ and, supposedly, the public sector and people’s “inability” to work means the government has no alternative other than to wreak havoc on pretty much everybody’s lives except those that got us in this mess – those that through profit-orientated practices have created unsustainable ‘growth’, where people have been encouraged to get into debt in order to finance corporate profits, with this money being nothing more than digits in a computer. The 2008 financial crisis saw a bail-out of the banks reaching around £1.5 trillion, with the banks asked to do nothing substantial in return.

Local councils today find themselves in this context, where the government is focused on blaming the individual rather than looking at inherent weaknesses of the economy and the unfairness of ordinary people having to pay the price for a culture of greed and risk. Despite central government championing localism – now called The Big Society – councils have seen their ability to act, especially in terms of raising money, increasingly curtailed through various legislation changes.

This unfairness is further compounded when judged in relation to the regional differences of the cuts imposed on local councils by the central government. Westminster has cut Sheffield Council’s funding by a substantial margin. It has been losing nearly £1 in every £3 of funding.

This is even more unfair when compared to other councils in the UK. For example, between 2010-11 and 2012-13, Sheffield Council’s funding was cut by £139 per person, but Richmond Upon Thames was cut by only £11.99. By 2015, Sheffield’s cuts will reach £200 for each person – over five times higher than many wealthy areas.

On January 25th, the Fair Deal for Sheffield campaign was officially launched with a photocall on the Town Hall steps featuring members from the voluntary and community sector, faith leaders, councillors and Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield. The campaign would gain momentum through a people’s petition at city-wide stalls, online, and through dissemination of facts and figures via social media about how Sheffield has been unfairly hit by the cuts.

Of course, the people’s petition came under immediate criticism for the simple reason that the official base of the campaign was housed under the roof of Labour party offices. While on one hand people were glad Labour were behind it, conspiratorial minds didn’t like the fact Labour were seemingly ‘behind’ it. Some were calling it a party propaganda exercise. Sheffield’s Liberal Democrats even set up their own Fair Deal for Sheffield website, not providing any sources for their claims that apparently Sheffield already had a fair deal from the central government.

Some smaller political parties and pressure groups complained that they were not being consulted about how the campaign was being run, while at the same time refusing to agree to sign the petition. There was a whiff of sour grapes about their whole protest, because if you were behind it on principle, you’d surely back the petition first, then get involved, not sign only if you were running the campaign.

This disjointed feeling about the fringes of anti-cuts resistance isn’t exclusive to Sheffield, of course; throughout history, a plethora of progressive causes have been hindered by the very opinionated principled personalities that they relied upon to succeed.

This, too, was a real catch 22 for many of the Labour MPs and councillors. Either they did nothing to raise awareness of the cuts passed down to them from on high, or they acted, and faced criticism for attempting to pass the buck and shift the blame to others. But, as we looked at in our last Now Then article in issue #49, the root of responsibility lies with central government.

In a system where central government determines the spending priorities and gets councils to administrate the pain, sections of the public are too quick to point the finger at their local authority. It’s so easy for people that aren’t in the councillor’s position to say, “Well, if I was in power, I’d do this.” So let’s look at a couple of those alternatives.

Illegal budgets

Without a coordinated campaign by councils across the country, illegal budgets – where the council commits to spending money they do not have – are unlikely to work. If a council sets an illegal budget, it becomes open to the Conservative Party’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, making an example of the dissenting council by imposing even harsher cuts to services. This means the city’s priorities of trying to use the money they do have to protect their own front-line services will be replaced by the Tories’ hate-and-bile politics.

Councils should use their reserves

Eric Pickles’ own research has found wealthier councils are more likely to have access to their reserves, but Pickles has still criticised councils for not using them. It is sometimes reported that Sheffield Council has £167 million in reserves, but this includes: £26 million that the council are looking after for schools; £25 million that can only be spent on council housing; and £57 million that is committed to the council’s “capital programme”.

Government rules prevent the council using this money in any other way and even if they did they would still need to repay this money in years to come. This leaves around £59 million reserves, but £48 million is earmarked for things they know they need to pay for in the future. So that leaves us with only £11 million, already the lowest reserves of any major city, set aside for situations such as floods.

It is about context, and not blaming local government for the failings and ideological vendettas of the central government, which for over thirty years has fundamentally weakened the powers of local government, while allowing the financial sector to weaken the sustainability of the economy.

afairdealforsheffield.com

Jane Watkinson & Jay Baker.