In the age of political disillusionment not many of us know who our MP is, let alone who our councillor is. An enduring image of councils as little more than parking wardens and rubbish collectors percolates the public mindset. We forget that local government means schools, social care, youth services, libraries, jobs… or at least it did, until the current coalition decided that ‘putting local people first’ was best served by whacking £10billion off councils’ books and hiving off local services to dodgy Tory donors.
Not to deride the small things though - a banner still hanging from Southwark’s Aylesbury estate in a housing protest bears a resident’s bitter lament - ‘I’m not voting for any of them until they fix the fucking lifts.’ The slogan dates from 2005.
If you want to find someone making local government glamorous and radical, look to the Greens in Brighton. Or at least some of them - this is the same administration that was dismissed by an irate worker as ‘fucking Tories on bikes’ after perceived mishandling of a bin workers’ strike. But now a handful of local Green councillors have defied the main parties, and sections of their own party, to vote down a cuts budget. They paralysed the Town Hall for a week before the budget was eventually passed.
Some might say that means a fairly simple defeat, and proves the Greens are as likely to implement cuts as much as anyone else - either ‘because there’s no alternative’ or ‘because they’re all neoliberals.’ I’m not sure the rebel councillors would agree.
I spoke to Alex Phillips, councillor for Goldsmid Ward, as she was heading through Euston Station to make a Liverpool-bound train for Green Party conference. Articulate and focussed but without the polished air of a career politician, Alex joined the Green Party years ago, after having been a Labour member. While admitting she’s a vegan and does ride a bike, she frames her party as akin to Old Labour: essentially the only party standing up for working class people.
‘I wasn’t elected to act on behalf of central government,’ Alex says on being asked why she voted no to a cuts budget. That’s also her answer to the inevitable question - if you do vote down a cuts budget, what happens when the Secretary of State simply steps in to run the council? The Government, in spite of their ‘localism’ agenda, exercise a considerable amount of control over how councils operate, including reserving the power to take over councils that don’t do as they’re told, even when there have been no service failings.
Brighton and Hove is in its fourth year of cuts. So far they’ve lost services from libraries to school music funding and are set to lose more. In the public reports pack, there are some damning consultation figures showing overwhelmingly negative residents’ views on cuts to children’s services. Alex says that’s true of all the proposed cuts.
‘They’re going after the most vulnerable. Poor people, parents, disabled people. The people that use council services are, obviously, those most in need of them.’ She confirms that it is statutory services like adult social care, i.e. those the Council has a legal obligation to provide, that are facing an especially harsh cut.
Had the cuts budget been shut down, it would have triggered a referendum on a 5.9% council tax rise. Alex did support a hike to pay for services previously, but not by this much ‘because the council tax system is regressive. It needs serious reform and neither Labour nor the Tories are offering anything like that.’
The Green group on Brighton council didn’t see eye to eye with Alex and her colleagues (including former deputy council leader Phelim MacCafferty and current deputy leader Ruth Buckley). The majority voted for the cuts budget, but according to Alex this is not a source of animosity. She claims the Greens are less used to three line whips and tight party control than Labour, and have a more relaxed attitude to dissent in the ranks. ‘We’re good at democracy.’ The suggestion that the cuts row will bear on Green MP Caroline Lucas’ election is therefore dismissed quickly. ‘She’s a fantastic constituency MP who recently won MP of the year, and people are also very aware of what the difference is between the council and parliament.’ Pointing to high turnout at the last election, she concurs that Brighton civil society is more active than most.
But it’s not all optimism.
Brighton and Hove may be Green, but it is certainly not naïve. It knows the horrors that four years of austerity have inflicted upon residents, under the eyes of those whose thankless task it is to be part-time elected members of institutions that are in the process of being slashed to ribbons.
‘Whoever wins the next election, there will be more cuts to Brighton and Hove. It might even be worse under a Labour government. We’re looking at £25million this year, and probably something roughly similar next year.’ In such circumstances, it is entirely unsurprising that a councillor isn’t willing to sit there and grit their teeth while millions are slashed from the budget year on year. What is surprising is that of twenty thousand local councillors, the ones who have voted against cuts budgets can be counted on a few hands.
If the Green surge can weather the general election and if central government continues to wantonly cut, sell off and meddle in our local services, we can only hope there will be more councillors like Phillips taking a stand.