There is an opportunity for the first time in 40 years for there to be a Labour council in Wandsworth. The excellent General Election results, with Rosena in Tooting coasting in with a huge majority and Marsha winning Battersea in a surprise (to some!) win, and where Labour even beat the Tories in Wandsworth Common and nearly took Putney from Justine Greening
Such a prize is worth fighting for – not least because Wandsworth has been the jewel in the crown of Tory local government since 1978. Wandsworth was always heralded as the ‘responsible’ council, a worked example of municipal Toryism in London. In fact Wandsworth was an exception, aggressively selling off its council housing and driving poor people out of the borough during the 1980s.
A Labour council could make a real difference to local people in Wandsworth, with a totally different set of priorities and a more socially inclusive agenda.
But there is a problem. Local government is dying.
It’s been dying since the early 1980s. Thatcher hated local government with a passion. For the Thatcherites local government was profligate, inefficient and a bureaucratic barrier to local people living their lives. They progressively sought to take away all its powers until local government was a hollow shell of what it had been. Alongside this the Tories stripped money away at a rate of knots, decimating local services and imposing privatisation and council housing sell off. Now local government is not meant to provide services, only enable them. This led to a profit bonanza for private companies who came in like vultures to take over local services, housing, repairs, waste and libraries, anything that they could run they grabbed.
It goes without saying that Wandsworth is one of the most privatised council in the country.
Under New Labour there was financial relief for councils and the pressure was taken off to some degree, but after 2010 the old Thatcherite project of destroying local government returned, this time with the excuse of austerity. Since then local budgets have been slashed with inevitable protests from the local community.
Austerity has led to a political problem for Labour as they run many of the councils facing some of the worst cuts. This has led to a lot of anger against Labour councillors for implementing Tory cuts. There was talk in September 2015 under the new left leadership of a campaign against council cuts but that was squashed inside the party – replaced by a statement that promised nothing (http://press.labour.org.uk/post/133458033869/the-governments-cuts-to-funding-for-local) and repeated calls from Corbyn and McDonnell not to set ‘no cuts budgets’.
It was clear back in 2015 that there was no intention by councillors to actively resist the cuts. Will it be different after 2018?
The financial squeeze by 2020
Funding for local government comes from a number of sources, both local and central. Locally council raise cash through council tax and various revenue streams (parking tickets, housing and garage rents, etc). In addition there is the Revenue Support Grant (RSG) which is money allocated from central government. Currently for London metropolitan Boroughs the RSG accounts for 26% of funding. By 2020 it will be down to 9% because the money set aside by Westminster for local government is due to decline by 53% (£5.4bn) by 2020.
Another 33% of local funds will be provided by local business rates (called the Baseline Funding Level). It goes without saying that the overall amount of money from the RSG and Baseline Funding will be dramatically reduced.
As well as these diminishing incomes, there is Council Tax, a regressive taxation system that does not take into account income, based on out of date ‘bands’ that mean low and middle value households pay more than the more expensive housing. Councils can choose to increase Council Tax by up to 4% a year, though this is largely meant to cover social services. The plan is for council tax to account for 51% of metropolitan funding by 2020. If they want to increase Council Tax more than that then you need to hold a local referendum.
In addition councils will have to rely on grants for specific projects or Section 106 money, cash from developers towards providing community and social infrastructure. Section 106 money often comes with a terrible compromise – councils must allow developers to build their huge blocks of luxury flats in order to ask for money for capital works projects (playgrounds, parks, libraries, etc). The money cannot be used for ongoing expenses, only for Capital Works and they must be site specific (the playground must be near the luxury flats)
Similar to Section 106 is the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), a tariff on private developers to fund infrastructure in other parts of the borough or district. Both S106 and CIL rely on gentrification of areas – they are the crumbs from the table of the huge profits made by private contractors.
Clearly any council elected will face very difficult decisions around budgets.
And this will have a huge impact on what a Labour Council can hope to achieve. We would like to see Wandsworth become a Living Wage employer, but that will cost money. We would like to see a huge expansion of housing service provision. We would like to see a lot more done around local education provision, and more schools bought back into Local Government control away from Academy Chains and Free Schools. But all this costs money.
The current plan is to spend from the reserves which have amassed in Wandsworth. This is a very good proposal. But a lot of reserves are ear marked legally for different expenditure, and reserves can only be spent once.
What we expect from Labour Councillors
What we want to see from Labour Councillors is some stomach for a fight against Tory austerity and privatisation. Even if councillors feel they have no option but to pass cuts budgets we don’t want councillors who just see themselves as “managers” over the collapse of local government. We want to see Labour councillors leading resistance in the community – not holding meetings to explain why they are passing cuts with a heavy heart, but to say they are angry and want to work with the community to fight back.
We want to see Labour Councillors unite across the country to mount a political and legal challenge. If several Labour Councils cannot meet their statutory needs and present a legal challenge over the loss of the RSG that at least poses the problem as a constitutional crisis for Westminster. It raises more directly the issue of local-central relations and why local government is being killed off by central.
We expect Labour Councils to ensure they preside over Living Wage workforces and are championing the Living wage among contractors and sub-contractors who do business with the Council. We also expect full union recognition both in the Council and among all private sector companies that the Council does business with.
We want Labour Councillors to be accountable to their local branches. This means attending ward meetings and being available for questions and answers on activity in the council chamber.
We also want local Councillors to be supportive of the current attempts by the Labour leadership to move the party away from social liberalism and the politics of “New Labour”. This means more democratic grassroots say in the party, a full democratic conference and local policy making.