Further to yesterday’s article, in which I summarised the problem with a number of Labour councils doing too little to mitigate the effects of austerity, I will outline what some Labour councillors are doing right, and how others, can and should improve.
For a start, the blatant self-serving extravagance, such as exhibited by the Lambeth administration led by Croydon North candidate Steve Reed. Considering the eye-watering cuts being inflicted on their residents, declaring that you want to build a new town hall, and unilaterally spending £1 million on consultants to examine the possibility, seems… disgusting at best. Another London borough, Tower Hamlets, spends a substantial sum on a directly elected figurehead mayor, and spends even more on producing a “community newspaper” (propaganda sheet) delivered to every home and business.
That said, Tower Hamlets is doing some things that it can be hugely proud of. They have launched a borough-wide replacement of the invaluable Education Maintenance Allowance, which, especially in some of the poorest communities in the country, is vital in supporting teenagers to study for their A Levels and this access many opportunities later on in their careers. Tower Hamlets is also examining the idea of implementing a Living Rent, though it is unclear as to how far their powers to control or influence housing costs extend.
A number of councils are declaring themselves to be Living Wage Employers, who will not only offer a fair deal to their own employees, but will lean on suppliers and contractors to do, the same, ultimately being prepared to move their custom to achieve it. If this were to become a universal Labour policy, the lives of millions will be completely transformed as the spectre of endless poverty for people working 40 hours and upwards a week is lifted. Even in austerity Britain, we must give every worker a fair deal.
In order to reduce the impact of the spending cuts, there seems nothing more practical than trying to increase your income. The real terms cuts in Council Tax have too great a cost attached to them, and councils may find that increasing it at RPI+0.5% will not be hugely unpopular as residents accept that it will mitigate central government grant reductions. In Brighton, the minority Green administration enjoys general approval for its move to raise the tax by 3.5% in exchange for keeping every library and care home open.
Labour councils should also look for creative solutions to get the well-off to shoulder a larger burden. Their powers to do so are limited, but they could easily charge triple council tax on second homes and empty properties. In London this may raise little, and it is difficult to find Labour-voting holiday destinations, but the message is an important one: locals’ one full time homes are more important than holiday homes for outsiders to the community. Besides, empty homes could be a lucrative source of income.
It is undoubtedly difficult to achieve social justice at local government level in times of austerity. But Labour can make progress, if they decide that they want to do so.