7 March 2017
Brockley's Green Councillor John Coughlin has delivered his response to the budget set by Lewisham's Labour council for 2017, at the council meeting on Wednesday 22nd February. John voted for the budget to pass after delivering a passionate speech on the financial difficulties facing councils in the face of huge funding cuts from central government.
In his words:
"The Council meeting on 22nd February was a difficult meeting for me. As the only opposition councillor in Lewisham, I am acutely aware of my responsibility to be an effective opposition, or as effective as I can be given the limitations. However, since my election, it has been my intention to be a constructive rather than obstructive member of the council. The meeting in February was to pass the budget for the year 2017-2018. In previous years, I have voted against Labour budgets. I have always noted the financial pressures the council is under, agreed that these pressures are the result of the determination on the part of the Conservative Party to vandalise local government, at the same time stating there are many things that we, as the Green Party, would do differently.
Studying the budget documents this year, it occurred to me that the situation this year is almost identical to that which prevailed last year; appalling and untenable, austerity-based cuts imposed by uncaring Conservative idealogues. I, along with everyone else on the centre-left of British politics, was desperately hoping for a change, for some respite from never-ending austerity. But we find ourselves still writhing under the same old Tory jackboot. Local government is on its knees; many more years of this and it will be dead.
I have never believed in knee-jerk, adversarial politics and have said so on many occasions. it occurred to me that, this year, the time had come to espouse centre-left, cross-party, cohesion. Therefore, although I am in no way convinced that a Labour Party fiefdom is healthy for the people of Lewisham, I do know how difficult it is to balance a budget when someone is robbing your bank account.
I believe that the top salaries at Lewisham Council are too high in the present circumstances. I am desperately keen to see a professional, unionised library service in Lewisham. However, the predicament as it effects local government is now existential; if we cannot find a degree of compromise now, when the situation is so desperate, we never will, and if we can’t leave behind for just one moment narrow, party-political obsessions, we will effectively be condemning the people of Lewisham to a bleak, unaccountable future.
With this in mind and with a heavy heart, I, on behalf of Lewisham Green Party, voted ‘yes’ to Lewisham Council’s budget for 2017-18."
Here is John's speech in its entirety:
"Well here we are again. Different year, different prime minister, different future, same old austerity: same old cuts, vandalism of public services, right-wing ideology driving common sense out the window, Same old, same old.
But this year, we have an extra bone to pick over, not only can we raise the council tax by 2%, we have a 3% precept on top of the 2% which we can spend on Adult Social Care. But let’s examine this 3% precept more closely; and if we do, we see it is no more than a fig leaf to cover this government’s embarrassment at not providing for the country’s health care needs. But it isn’t just a fig-leaf, it is also a way in which the Government can pass the buck. As an exercise in buck passing it is sinister, cynical, Machiavellian even.
It is part of the Government’s ham-fisted, clumsy attempt to split the health service into medical care provided in hospitals and funded by national Government and adult social care provided in the community, and funded by local Government. And to do this, they are saying we can have an extra 3% on top of the maximum rise to pay for this transition; ignoring the fact that the money raised by the 3% precept is very obviously wholly inadequate for the funding of such a fundamental shift in health service provision. But, as I say, it also allows them to put the blame on us for any perceived or actual failings. So a Tory national Government is getting local government to do its dirty work for them. Is all we can do shrug our shoulders and get on with it, is all we can do say yes to the dance even though we know our ‘partner’ is going to do nothing but tread on our feet?
We could of course hold a referendum on raising Council Tax above the 2% limit, which with the precept is a 5% limit, etc. Because everyone in Lewisham will be really keen on another referendum!!?? Do you think that, if we did, if we explained the situation in plain facts, if we put the need for more funding to the people of Lewisham, they would be willing to pay more tax? Do you think that they accept that we are doing our best and give Lewisham Council credit for coping with an impossible situation, that, in a time of crisis for local government, we’re all in the same boat and have to pull together? Maybe some do, but as we go out more and more to Lewisham doorsteps in the coming year. I believe we’ll find exactly the opposite is true; if we say we have no money, you know what the retort will be. ‘Well look at the amount of money the Mayor and the senior officers at Lewisham Council make. How is that being in the same boat?’
It would obviously be easier if we were a Tory council. We could argue for a 15% increase in Council Tax to pay for adult social care, and then miraculously change our minds at the last minute and realise that the 5% was a just and equitable settlement all along. We’ll never know why Surrey County Council changed their mind…why a Tory council, whose turf includes constituencies of important Conservative politicians, changed its mind…no I just can’t work it out ...
Let’s not be under any illusions, if we proposed a referendum for extra Council Tax to pay for adult social care, the proposal would not pass. But we need to start this discussion, let’s get it out in the open, it’s almost a question of Lewisham Council making amendments to its own budget, to say what we would do and to state precisely how much it would cost and how much extra people would have to pay on top of what they’re already paying to meet this cost. My argument is not that we should be spending £500,000 on holding a referendum, but that we should be starting the discussion, engaging the people of Lewisham.
Because why wouldn’t such a proposal pass? It won’t pass not because people of Lewisham don’t understand that Tory ideologues are imposing their own visions on us, that this is abject vandalism on the part of national government, but because this council has failed to persuade them that we are actually all in this together. Lewisham is top heavy in terms of salaries for its leaders, and the people know this. We are NOT all in the same boat.
Let’s imagine a resident walking through Lewisham, past the closed libraries, and the big Lewisham Council finger appears in the sky saying to him: education, community cohesion, it’s not for you! Past the dozens of new builds this Labour council has constructed throughout Lewisham, with absolutely no social housing provision, again the big finger points: ‘A home, warmth, safety, community; it’s not for you! Oh but, by the way, our senior officers are earning huge salaries, and also, can we increase your Council Tax by another 10%?’
This council is almost dead, the death by a thousand cuts analogy is a well-worn one, but in this case, it is accurate – and it is exsanguination that will carry us off. We are at death’s door and we must do something. I will quote Bristol Green Party Councillor Carla Denyer “if Labour leaders …joined with the Greens and other progressive parties and unions the message would be so much stronger. If they were to join us in prioritising sending a united and firm message saying “no, you can’t do this, people are going to die because of these cuts, you have to give us more” and refused to cooperate until they listened, well that’s an incredibly large combined population to say no to”.
But the Labour Party in Bristol is going to do nothing in this regard and I have no doubt that the Labour Party in Lewisham will be equally as unresponsive to the only way we can possibly mitigate this vandalism, and that is to join together, to put aside our differences and to persuade the people of Lewisham that we are all in this together. You are so obsessed with internal Labour party politics, with trying to figure out whether Mr Corbyn is a good thing or a bad thing, that you risk fiddling while Lewisham burns, whilst Nero sits in his high office partaking of his high salary, surrounded by Lewisham council acolytes on equally high salaries. The people of Lewisham know: we are not all in this together.
And, colleagues, if Lewisham Labour Party is not able or willing to see the bigger picture and to work with like-minded people for the greater good. If there is no social housing provision, if we cannot maintain such a valuable resource as Lewisham’s libraries,
I warn you not to grow poor
I warn you not to want a house to live in
I warn you not to want to read a book"