Thursday, 22 September 2011

Impact of Council Cuts

The following letter appeared in today's Weston Mercury:

I am writing on behalf of North Somerset UNISON, which represents workers at North Somerset Council. Last week the council put it’s budget proposals for the next 3 financial years out to consultation. I would urge every single resident of North Somerset to respond to that consultation by phoning, writing or arranging to see their councillor and then telling them what the impact will be on them. The council plan to make £50 million of cuts or a third of their budget for services, with £17.5 million of cuts already beginning to be made in the current financial year. It is just not possible to take this much money out of services without it having a serious impact, and make no mistake the impact will be severe, because the council plan to make massive cuts to services for the elderly, disabled, children and young people. In a study commissioned by Scope – a leading disability charity – North Somerset were ranked 145 out of 152 councils in the U.K in terms of the severity of cuts to services for disabled people. The council may also want to bear in mind that earlier this year a number of disabled service users took Birmingham City Council to the High Court over their cuts and won their case. North Somerset UNISON have advised the council on a number of occasions that that they may be at risk of legal action because of some of their cuts proposals.

North Somerset Council tell us that they have no choice but to make these cuts, because central government has reduced their funding. But the ruling party in North Somerset is also the ruling party at Westminster, and the council have also made some poor decisions in the past. For instance we have consistently opposed the council’s privatisation agenda, particularly the £10 million per year 10 year contract for Support Services which they signed just a couple of months before the Tory led government announced their austerity measures. This and other contracts has effectively put large parts of their budget outside the control of councillors and as a result other services are now facing larger cuts. We have also consistently opposed their decision to buy the Castlewood offices in Clevedon at a cost of £14 million, and to refurbish the town hall at a cost of almost £10 million – this money would have been better used for services, and certainly council workers would rather keep services and jobs than have a flashy new office. It seems that a number of Weston Mercury readers agree with me - it was interesting to read the recent letters in the Mercury, which have outlined concerns about the council spending large amounts of money buying the Castlewood offices and refurbishing the Town Hall. It does seem peculiar that the council is prioritising buildings over services at such a time, and no matter how many times the council claim the new buildings will make savings in the long term it really is now that they need the money to provide services to our most vulnerable citizens.

But the council make it very clear that they intend to provide less services directly. Instead they will simply not provide some services at all, they will privatise services or they will ask local communities to run services themselves. For instance, it looks likely that many of our rural libraries will close unless members of the community are prepared to volunteer to run them. The council leader often claims that Congresbury library is run by volunteers – but this is not entirely true – there is a paid member of staff working at Congresbury library who supervises the volunteers, and we would argue that without that paid member of staff there would be no library service in Congresbury. The so-called “Big Society” is one of a number of elements of the Tory led government’s vision for the UK which is taking us back in time to Victorian Britain where ordinary people had to rely on the philanthropy of the wealthy, and church and charitable organisations for their services.

As a trade union we are of course concerned that over the 4 years of cuts the council will lose 280 full-time jobs – and because the majority of council employees are women, and many work part-time, this probably means that between 400 and 500 people will lose their jobs. This cut in jobs equates to 25% of the council’s non-schools workforce. In addition the council are planning to cut the wages of some of its lowest paid staff, including home care workers, the majority of whom again are women. This is on top of the 3 year pay freeze that has been imposed on all council staff. The council is North Somerset’s largest employer and the loss of jobs is already having knock on effects for the local economy. All you have to do is walk down Weston High Street to see the shops closing, and also the type of shops that are taking their place.

Public sector trade union members, including UNISON members, throughout North Somerset will soon be balloted on whether or not to take industrial action on 30th November over the pensions dispute. I would like to make it clear to your readers that despite the government and media reports, public sector pension schemes are affordable and sustainable. It is simply the case that the government want to take money out of our pension schemes to pay off the deficit – it is effectively a tax on public sector workers on top of the council, income and other taxes we already pay. The government have not been negotiating in good faith with the trade unions and as a result our last resort may have to be industrial action. But I also want to make it clear that during industrial action, trade unions make agreements with employers over emergency cover. We are not heartless – we are public sector workers because we care about the people we serve and we will not leave them in danger. Our campaign is not just about our own pensions – it’s about decent pensions for everyone, whether you work in the public or private sector, and it’s also about protecting jobs and services. On 30th November we hope that millions of public sector workers taking industrial action will send a clear signal to the government that ordinary working people will no longer pay the price of cuts to jobs, services and pensions – a price which should instead be paid by those that caused the financial crisis.

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