Birmingham city council is in a deep financial crisis. The reason for this crisis is that it, like other local councils, is being starved of funds by central government in the interests of keeping down taxes – mainly to boost the profits of big business and the fortunes of those who are already stinking rich.
Instead of helping those who are being hit hardest by unemployment and poverty, this government and its predecessor, just like the last Labour government, have devoted themselves to heaping the crisis onto the backs of workers whilst plundering the services that are supposed to be provided for the poorest.
Rather than leading any fightback against the cuts, or putting up any challenge or political opposition to this disgrace, “Labour council leader Councillor John Clancy welcomed the review [of the budget proposals undertaken by the Local Government Association] and said that, rather than wait until 1 April, council staff were already focused on planning to deliver next year’s cuts.” (Why doubt has been cast over Birmingham city council’s budget by Neil Elkes, Birmingham Mail, 9 January 2017)
Such dispassionate thoroughness in economic planning will come as a great reassurance to Birmingham’s Labour voters! Communists, however, must point out that Clancy and others like him are the class enemy, and they must be defeated in their attempts to attack the wages and conditions of workers, many of whom are already on the breadline.
Cuts 2017: divide and rule
Birmingham city council was once the single biggest local authority in Europe, but a workforce of 20,000 has now been cut in half and the plans that are being implemented by Labour seek to further slash this number to 7,000 by 2018. In January, the Birmingham Mail reported:
“The city council is already under pressure to reconsider major cuts to support for the homeless and support for disabled adults, as well as reductions in funding for parks, the arts and museums, under its 2017-18 budget proposals.”
Binmen under attack – again
In meetings held in March with dustmen, street cleaning teams and other employees, the council has been doing its bit to foster maximum loathing among the working class and to scupper opposition to its plans. Binmen are expected to take a £3,000 per year pay cut and an increase in the working week from four (extremely demanding) days to five. Crews on Birmingham’s wagons are to be reduced, as is the ratio of leading hands (supervisors), which risks putting the public at risk from fatal collisions on busy streets.
Workers from street cleaning (litter picking, etc) who are on the same pay grade, will remain untouched … this year. The logic, of course, is divide and rule. Break any strike with scab labour if necessary, but better still foster hatred amongst the workers as hundreds turn out to clean up the rubbish that has been left by their striking colleagues. Of course, if those workers who turn scab or maintain such narrow-minded protectionism think for a moment that the budget cuts won’t be back next year for their own pay and conditions, they will find they have been sorely mistaken.
Binmen, and others who will in all probability turn out on strike, will need to come out determined to win. Enforcing six to a picket to simply stand by and watch scab-driven lorries and carts leaving the depots will bring certain defeat. Strikers must be urged to find creative ways to ensure lorries do not leave their depots: that tyres are bereft of air; that wagons have ignitions but no keys; that entrances and exits are barricaded; and that scabs run a gauntlet from the agency office to the depot.
Any wagon that makes it out must be prevented from completing its work, and pressure must be piled upon the council by the public, who can take their rubbish and heap it upon the steps of the council house for Councillor Clancy and co to clean up. Better still, it could be delivered to the plush suburbs where they live, and to the neighbourhood offices of the local Labour party.
No chief executive
Mark Rogers, until recently the council’s chief executive, spoke to newspapers in December 2016 about the scale of the cuts in Birmingham: “The effects of six years of austerity meant Birmingham’s youth service had ‘all but gone’, homelessness prevention services had been cut by so much that rough sleeping had quadrupled, and far fewer elderly people were eligible for care at home.
“In an interview with the Guardian, he also said a network of children’s centres designed to serve the city’s most deprived communities had been dismantled so that now only the ‘super-deprived’ were being helped, and even these remaining services were under threat.
“Rogers said the council had reached ‘a deadly serious situation for too many vulnerable people, who face the prospect of not having their needs met’. He said that as a non-elected official it was not his place to use words such as ‘catastrophic’, but added: ‘We are fast reaching the point where there could be catastrophic consequences for some people.’
“He said 2017-18 would be the toughest year yet for the council, with expected reductions of £113m to the council’s overall budget, on top of the £650m already cut since 2010. ‘It is the seventh year of cuts and next year has the last huge slug in it.’
“He said he regretted the cuts he had been forced to make to important services, and listed half a dozen areas. In addition to social care, he singled out cuts to homelessness prevention services as one of the reasons why rough sleeping in the city had quadrupled since 2010 …
“He said Birmingham was in the ‘unenviable position’ of competing with Liverpool to be classified as the city in England worst affected by local authority cuts, but councils throughout the UK faced similar difficulties. The Local Government Association said councils in England and Wales had dealt with a 40 percent real-terms reduction to their core government grant between 2010 and 2015, and had made a total of £20bn in savings, losing 350,000 full-time staff members.
“‘We are not desensitised to what’s happening, but we have got used to having to do this systematically.’” (Birmingham council chief years of cuts could have catastrophic consequences by Amelia Gentleman, Guardian, 12 December 2016)
It was obviously all too much for Rogers, who packed his bags and left.
Homelessness and destitution: ‘no votes in helping the homeless’
One tragic consequence of the recent cuts has been the huge rise in rough sleeping across Birmingham. This winter, it has been accompanied by death. The first victim in late November 2016 came on a cold night, with the discovery of a body near New Street station. Alan Fraser, who runs Birmingham YMCA, spoke to newspapers about the death:
“We can’t say an individual died because of local authority cuts, but the reality is that the risks of people dying because of homelessness at this time of year are massively increased, because people cannot get into the places they need to be in.”
To any honest reader the causal link is clear.
“Paul Atkin, who has run homelessness charity Reachout Network in the city for 20 years, said: ‘I have never seen it so bad. The number of people we are seeing on the street in Birmingham is frightening. In 1996, we would see 20 people a night; now, we see four times that amount.”
“Atkin was doing a 6.00am check of the streets near the railway station to ensure that no rough sleepers had died of hypothermia. By 8.00am, he and his wife, Jackie, had counted 27 people asleep in the streets around the station; this was a relatively quiet morning, he said.
“‘There are a lot of young women now, which is very alarming. They have cut back everything and these poor people are stuck in a cycle of homelessness. The numbers have snowballed in the past year. There is a massive need and a huge void of available services, he said.
“In John Bright Street, a council road sweeper was cleaning the area near where the homeless man died, contemplating whether to move a crate and some flattened cardboard that were clearly being used as bedding. He had noticed soaring numbers of people sleeping rough. ‘There are definitely more. It’s got to be double. It is shocking,’ he said.” (Rough sleeping on rise in Birmingham after cuts to services for homeless by Amelia Gentleman, Guardian, 2 December 2016)
The Birmingham Mail reported on the discussions over the cuts to budgets helping the homeless as follows: “About a third of the 80-strong group were angry over a proposed cut of £5m in 2017-18 and a further £5m the following year, and unsuccessfully tried to get the budget amended amid much acrimony.
“But [Labour leader] Clancy’s majority held on this. ‘There’s no votes in helping the homeless,’ was one backbencher’s assessment, ‘so if it’s a choice between that and shutting the local library, the library gets the money.’” (Why homelessness threatens to split Birmingham’s Labour group by Neil Elkes, Birmingham Mail, 8 December 2016)
That’s bourgeois democracy, folks.
Communists and the movement against cuts
Tragically, too many people around the country are simply waiting for all the cuts to magically come to an end and for the British ruling class to return to what they imagine were the Labour politics of 1945. Some well-meaning but essentially deluded optimists hold to the belief that good intentions plus Jeremy Corbyn can make this possible.
Whether it’s in relation to the privatisation of the NHS, an end to foreign wars of aggression or the seven-year freeze on public sector pay, it’s time for workers in Britain to draw a few simple conclusions from the all too apparent reality, so we can get off our knees and start to fight back in a meaningful and effective way.
Labour, Tory – same old story.