progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

A ConDem anti-cuts group?

An unusual letter, by a "group" unrelated to the established Darlington against Cuts campaign, appeared in The Northern Echo on Saturday:

WHEN Jenny Chapman stood for election she told us, quite rightly, that she was a local woman who would stand up for local services. She told us that she was proud to live in Darlington and that helped her get elected.

How ironic, then, that three of the six people (soon to be three of five once Cliff Brown leaves) who are steering Darlington into devastating cuts do not live in Darlington, are not users of our services, and have no long-term commitment to Darlington.

"One Darlington - Perfectly Placed" is the council's community strategy and it talks about Darlington being a good place to live and work.

However the ruling Labour group is allowing senior staff to make hurried cuts which will leave Darlington not such a good place to live and work.

While we understand the arguments about cuts, we feel the rush to be the first to instigate them is shameful. As a group of concerned citizens, we ask that more time is spent thinking through the effects of what is planned. Should we really be cutting our front-line services, or should we spend more time looking at what the private or voluntary sector can deliver? Wouldn't you rather see a private company emptying your bins than see the closure of a children's centre? - Darlington NoToCuts residents group, address supplied

I'm a resident of Darlington, and I'd be interested to know if this group has any links to either of the parties which are implementing the cuts nationally whilst opposing them locally...?

Darlington for Culture

Tonight, the first Cultural Parliament took place in the Club Room of Darlington's Arts Centre. Over a hundred people were packed into the room to discuss the future of arts and culture in the borough.

A meeting at the Arts Centre on October 7 was called to discuss the situation, and a steering group was set up to develop an alternative to potential closure. The Cultural Parliament tonight was chaired by Paul Harman and it involved the steering group reporting on their progress and explaining the CIC proposal. It was heartening to hear the enthusiasm for the arts centre expressed by a student from the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth College, and the commitment of people with experience in management, media, and youth theatre to saving the Arts Centre.

Questions from the floor were constructive, however when Lib Dem councillor Mike Barker spoke from the floor and criticised the council, and the motives of the chair (Paul is a Labour Party member, this is no secret), there was an angry response from one man, who loudly demanded that he "should resign as a Liberal councillor in protest at government cuts"! Members of the steering group expressed the view that the project is not party political.

It was acknowledged that council employees face an uncertain year, and I was conscious of that it is a stressful time for Arts Centre staff and local government officers present. Darlington Borough Council expects large and front-loaded cuts to be imposed by the Tory/Liberal government, and the ruling Labour group has put forward proposals, which include withdrawing the generous subsidies for the Arts Centre and the Civic Theatre. (Though the details of the funding settlement with the government won't be known until next month, it's likely that the council's expectation is correct - the government is keen to outsource decision-making on cuts in the name of "localism", as I've detailed in a previous post.)

At the end of the event, representatives from twenty one arts associations and the overwhelming majority of those present backed Darlington For Culture's proposal to establish a CIC which will work to keep the Arts Centre open into the future. I'm sure that support for this initiative will grow and hope that other groups of service users and providers will consider developing co-operative proposals to keep services going.

Darlington Together

Last Monday, I attended the first of the Talking Together events on the future of the public services that  Darlington Borough Council provides. I went to get a better understanding of what the Tory/Liberal government was imposing on our council, and how people were responding.

Chris McEwan, the Cabinet member for Resources and Efficiency, delivered a presentation to open the proceedings. Strangely, he chose not to give an overtly political perspective on the cuts programme and instead focused on the council's financial situation. The feeling of Cabinet members was perhaps that, at an event at which council officers would be present to answer questions from the public, it was not appropriate to make overtly political arguments.

After the introduction, a great number of people departed to the break-out sessions on the arts centre and adult services. (I spotted fellow Darlington bloggers in the audience - Mike Barker, Annabel Townsend, and  Nick Wallis, present in his Cabinet member capacity.)

I decided to sit at the Economy table, because I was curious to find out how council officers understood the authority's relationship to the local economy. Here are the notes I made of the debates which took place, with parenthetic commentary:

£ ~ The change to local government funding in cash terms is both sudden and severe – it's clear the government is outsourcing decision-making on spending cuts to local authorities. (I think this amounts to an attack on local democracy; imposing a retrenchment upon will reduce the capacities and resources available to councils.)

£ ~ There's a need to maintain reserves to deal with emergencies, running them down could leave the town vulnerable in the event of unforeseen circumstances (such as, I'd say, if the government wields the axe even further than it currently plans).

£ ~ Less people will be directly employed by the council (this will no doubt impact on the quality of services).
As a small unitary authority, there will be issues with scale in terms of commissioning services; collaboration with neighbouring authorities already exists and will probably be extended to other areas.

£ ~ Chris MacEwan pointed out that the Coalition's big society is actually statist – the government expects it can use state power to create associative forms of service provision that exists in countries which lack a comprehensive welfare system (this necessarily imposes the "big society" model onto local authorities, which must look to voluntary groups in order to sustain services).

£ ~ There's a danger of public services retreating from working together, but with less funding available across the public sector, it will be important for greater collaboration between organisations.

After a while, I drifted off to see what was going on downstairs in one of the breakout groups. The Arts Centre meeting had attracted a significant number of people, and this it quickly became apparent to me that this is where the action was in terms of public reaction to the cuts.

Questions from the floor expressed incomprehension and frustration at the changes which were taking place. Not surprising since Cameron when leader of the opposition promised no frontline services would be affected by a Tory government.

Though for-profit outsourcing firms might be expected to gain, the sheer size of the cuts to local government funding could result in some of them going out of business, resulting in a swift concentration in new markets for public service provision (just as privatisation of public transport led to a near-immediate monopoly of provision in bus services, Darlington's bus wars being a notorious example).

Outsourced service provision could become less accountable to elected representatives and local people and more concerned with generating profit for shareholders. The government's frontloading of cuts to councils will make it difficult to manage the transition to a model of service delivery which would be prefereable to outsourcing; for example, members of the Labour Group are supportive of co-operative forms of enterprise, which can better retain a public service ethos.

In this respect, Darlington for Culture's propospectus and public meetings could be an example other threatened services might choose to follow. At the time of writing, the petition in support of arts and culture in Darlington had gathered over 1300 signatures. The open and democratic spirit in which Darlington for Culture has emerged owes much to Paul Harman, chair of the steering group; Paul has past experience, not only from working in creative industries, but also from his involvement with the co-operative housing movement. A "Cultural Parliament" will be held this Thursday at 7pm in the Arts Centre to sign up people and associations to become members of DfC and volunteer time and money to the project.

cutting across sectors

Darlington Borough Council is holding two events this month to gather feedback on the budget proposals for 2011 to 2015: Monday 8 November starting 5.30 in Central Hall at the Dolphin Centre, or Tuesday 16 November at the same time and place. Feeback will influence the detailed budget proposals that the Cabinet will announce in January.

Since a majority of the council's funding comes from central government, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition's decision to rush into large-scale spending cuts means the council expects that it will have to reduce spending by £22m by 2014. The actual amount will be known at the end of this year when the government informs the council of its settlement.

I've written several blog posts about the economic vandalism of the Tory/Liberal coalition. And I've always been clear about the interests they represent - that of the country's corporate and financial elite, the few not the many. So it comes as no surprise to learn that small businesses will be locked out of the Regional Growth Fund or that the government has abolished the Grant for Business Investment which has allowed firms to expand and create jobs. So much for Britain being open for business...

The most vocal backing to the coalition's rushed and far-reaching cuts has been given by a small number of big business leaders. But this political support is not an indication that the Age of Austerity is good for all businesses - in fact, the response from the small business and manufacturing lobby groups is more representative of the reality of the cuts on the private sector. The efforts of the coalition could have gone into reforming the banks so that they are lending to (rather than borrowing from) businesses which are able to expand.

Sadly, local representatives of the Tory/Liberal coalition don't seem to have learnt anything about economics in the last few months (what organisation on the verge of bankruptcy has a triple-A credit rating?) and are still blissfully ignorant of the impact the coalition's austerity agenda will have on the ability of the private sector to create jobs.

I try not to be cynical about politicians - I always assume that they are giving their honest opinion. But do the Tories and Liberals in Darlington really think that the government is going to secure the conditions for the private sector to take on those who lose their jobs in the public sector? Since the pace and scale of the cuts will weaken the voluntary sector, how on earth can there be a "big society" in our town?

Such is the level of agreement between Darlington's Tories and Liberals, though, I wouldn't be surprised to see a merger before next year's local elections. After all, why have two Tory parties in one borough...?