Thursday, 16 December 2010

Letter to Mercury 16th December

And edited version of this letter was published in today's Weston Mercury:
I am writing in response to your front page article on North Somerset Council’s proposals for how it will cut its budget by £15.8 million in 2011/12, with further cuts amounting to £42 million over 4 years. As the Branch Secretary of North Somerset UNISON, which represents council workers I was surprised that the Mercury focused on the future plans to close the current Weston Library building and move the library service to the Town Hall, rather than the much more immediate proposals to reduce the numbers of library staff, and ask local people to volunteer to run libraries. This, in our view, will have a much greater impact on library services, because as paid library staff are reduced, and if volunteers fail to step forward then library hours will reduce and some libraries will eventually close. Councillor Ashton was quoted in the Midweek Mercury as saying “If people are prepared to jump up and down about a library then they should be prepared to help run this service too”. We would like to make it clear that Congresbury Library, which Councillor Ashton gave as an example, is not run entirely by volunteers – volunteers work alongside a paid member of staff and are managed by a library manager. Congresbury Library is a unique case, given that the building is owned by the Parish Council, and is unlikely to be so easily replicated in other parts of North Somerset. It is our view that the so-called Big Society idea of volunteers running local services may prove to be unworkable, particularly if citizens are either not prepared to volunteer, or are too busy holding down more than 1 job in order to pay the bills.

The council have made it clear that they intend to provide less services directly, and that the direction they intend to take will be to privatise services, as well as asking citizens themselves to provide services. Although the council argues that children’s and adult’s social services will be protected, by far the biggest budget cut (14%) will be to children’s and young people’s services – this includes cuts to the team which is responsible for school improvements, cuts to Connexions and Aiming High for disabled children, withdrawing funding from the schools music service, and a reduction in funding for training school support staff. In Adult Social Services we are particularly worried by the proposals which will see £500,000 taken out of the budget for care packages for the elderly and disabled, a £700,000 reduction in supporting people services, again impacting on the care and support of the most vulnerable, and reductions in home care and residential care.
As a Local Authority, North Somerset Council are required to actively promote equalities, and as part of this to undertake what are called equality impact assessments on all the services they provide, and on any proposed changes to those services. Equality impact assessments allow the council to assess the impact of their proposals on particular groups of people - people of different ethnic origins, women and men, young and old people, disabled people, gay people, and people of different religions. If as a result there will be a negative impact on a particular group, they can then make revisions to their proposals in order to remove or lessen that impact. UNISON have been requesting that the council assess its budget proposals for the impact on different groups of people for a number of months now – we have still seen little evidence of this and we are concerned that the council will find itself in breach of its equality duties if it does not assess the impact of its budget proposals.

As far as jobs are concerned, in the first year the council will lose 130 full time jobs. The council’s future intentions make it clear that they will be operating with a significantly reduced workforce – this could amount to losing 25% of its workforce over the 4 years of cuts, and that’s excluding those council employed staff who work in schools, for whom we currently have no estimate of job losses. We are seriously concerned about the council’s ability to deliver services with such a reduced workforce, and we are also worried about the knock-on effects for the North Somerset economy, given that the council is currently the largest local employer. In addition to job losses, council workers will see their spending power reduced by a 3 year pay freeze, or pay cut as we like to call it, and now the council intend to cut the pay and conditions of some of the lowest paid council workers, the majority of whom are women. Not only will this impact on service delivery, but it is also a false economy, as lower paid council workers, will spend less, pay less tax, may become eligible for benefits, and as a result stunt economic growth. The council themselves have identified a number of risks associated with such savage cuts, including a slower economic recovery. For us, it makes no sense, that they are proposing measures, which will actually worsen the recovery.

A slowed-down economic recovery will also mean that the council’s strategy of privatisation will be a risky one – what will happen to services if the private companies delivering those services go under? Indeed the council’s own policy of freezing contract prices is also likely to have a negative impact on the private sector. At national level UNISON have been arguing that cuts to the public sector will also impact on the private sector - we have seen that already with the impact on the construction industry of the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future. Here in North Somerset we argued that signing a £10 million per year, 10 year contract for council support services, would actually put part of the council’s budget outside their control and mean that front line services would he forced to take a bigger cut – this seems to be the case for children’s services. UNISON opposes the privatisation of public services because it is our view that it leads to a more expensive and poorer quality service when private companies put profits before people. Even the Chancellor George Osborne queried the £900 cost of his Christmas tree supplied by the private contractor responsible for 11 Downing Street. Privatisation also takes public services out of the control of locally elected councillors and therefore local people. Privatisation quite simply means that public money – our money – is used to create profits for private companies of which we are not shareholders. It remains to be seen whether savings materialise from the recent privatisation of the council’s support services – a similar contract at Somerset County is not meeting its savings targets.

The council are also arguing that because they have made so many cuts since 2007 that they are in a better position than others to deal with the Coalition government’s public spending cuts. The logic of this argument escapes us, as it seems more likely that because they have cut services to the bone over the last 3 years, there is nothing left to cut and as a result front line services are bound to suffer. Such severe cuts means it is now likely that the citizens of North Somerset will experience much reduced and poorer services, or they just won’t get the services they are entitled to. Councillor Ashton also said in the Mercury that he is worried that the public don’t understand the severity of the forthcoming cuts to public services. I have to say I agree with him on this. You can’t cut £15 million from your budget without it having a massive impact on services. The Coalition government do not have a mandate for such savage cuts, which local councils are now implementing. UNISON, along with many other trade unions and leading economists, believe that there is an alternative to the cuts, and that rather than slash funding for public services, the Coalition government should reduce the deficit by bringing in legislation to close tax loop holes and tax havens, which are used by companies to avoid paying almost £100 billion of tax every year – think about that the next time you’re in Top Shop, Burton or BHS. We also support the introduction of a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. Quite simply we need to tax the banks and other financial institutions that caused the recession, instead of cutting public spending, which hits the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. It seems very odd to us that we are constantly being told we’re all in this together, when it is also made abundantly clear on a daily basis that we are not. We urge the people of North Somerset to start talking to their local councillors about the impact of the cuts on the services they rely on, to attend council meetings (18th January and 22nd February 2011) and speak up for their local services. We also urge them to join our campaign to defend public services and to attend the Rally against the Cuts in London on 26th March 2011.

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