Mendip TUC Cuts Meeting, Tuesday 27th November, Assembly Rooms, Frome.
As budgets across Somerset are cut to the bone a Mendip TUC meeting was called. Unite, GMB and NUT unions, Fair Frome, Citizens Advice Bureau and local representatives from Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties all came together to discuss the implications of a further £14 million cuts to the council budget across the county next year and the impact this will have throughout Frome, Mendip and Somerset on the lives of ordinary people.
In his introduction to a packed Assembly Rooms here in Frome, Robin Head, who represents 500,000 teachers and sits on the National Executive of the NEU/NUT talks of us being at the ‘cliff edge of finances’ here in Somerset. Services that have been sliced and sliced again are now due for a squeeze that will see our public services decimated.
Robin introduces Nigel Behan of Unite as the first speaker. Nigel places the blame for the current collapse of Somerset CC’s finances fairly and squarely at the door of the Tory run council, ‘They didn’t want to put Council Tax up. Children’s services have been worst hit. Budgets are underfunded or overspent – depending on how you want to look at it. Adult social care is badly hit too. The Finance Director resigned, followed by his Deputy, and just this week another Finance Director has gone.’ Peter Lewis is now in charge of sums – and his fee for this is a cool £900 a day, which will be funded by the taxpayer – you and me. The previous Leader of Somerset County Council, Sheila Wheeler, is rumoured to have looked at the figures and asked, ‘How much are two Baby P’s going to cost us?’ Nigel predicts that as services are slashed across the board the future of Mendip DC itself is looking shaky. A unitary body – one overall Somerset County Council – would shave a whole layer from local government. But Mendip DC is locked into a contract with the notorious Capita and Nigel isn’t sure how they would be able to get out of it. The contract locks Mendip and Capita into a ten year deal. As Robin points out the county council now can’t even meet its statutary duty to provide school places. The outlook is incredibly gloomy.
The next speaker is Tim Northover from the GMB union. His members are being decimated by the cuts. Special Educational needs provision is being shredded. One hundred and thirty Sure Start/Get Set staff are being axed or being asked to consider ‘compulsory unpaid leave’. He describes the learning disability service, Discovery, as a ‘real, real concern’. Private provision of public services is unravelling across the country, Somerset is no exception. Tim mentions the knock-on effect of the cuts on police, the NHS, mental health provision, children’s services and benefits cuts. The picture looks bleak.
Bob Ashford from Fair Frome is introduced next and describes his organisation’s work, providing both food and furniture banks locally. Fair Frome see deep poverty and inequality in this deceptively prosperous looking small town. He singles out two wards, Trinity and Keyford in particular, where three years ago studies showed that 25% of children were classed as living in poverty. He predicts that since the arrival of Universal Credit eighteen months ago that figure will be considerably higher now. Add to that the loss of two Sure Start centres and the loss of public services – mostly relocated to Shepton Mallet or Bath – and impossible for people with limited budgets to access, and you have a community on its knees. Bob explains, ‘People without a voice are impacted most by these cuts. How do we give those people a voice?’
Last year Fair Frome alone helped eight hundred and fifty families and individuals with food parcels. They also provide regular hot meals for those who would otherwise go without. He mentions the devastation that the roll out of Universal Credit has caused locally. There is now a twelve week wait for new claimants who are waiting for their first payment. People are losing their homes. In Keyford alone the loss of the Sure Start/Get Set centre will be a devastating loss for families and children who have fallen way below the poverty line. In a perfect storm of deprivation the GP surgery that served the Mount estate has also closed, meaning that access to healthcare for these families is now at the far end of town. Childrens health and childrens mental health services are major casualties of this change. It is very difficult for families in poverty to access appointments at the new surgery. A charged phone is a luxury many can’t afford.
As Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur for Poverty discovered in his recent visit to the UK, ‘The State no longer has your back. You’re on your own.’ The Tories ignore this. They are completely in denial about the effects of their own policies. Read his report in full here: UN Poverty Report.pdf
The next speaker is the Chief Executive of CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau). There are branches in Frome, Shepton Mallet, Street and Wells which run several times a week, there is also a van that visits Glastonbury once a week. He explains, ‘we have been really badly hit by cuts to our services. We have lost £98,000 of funding – that’s 21% of our overall funding. Frome is our busiest office, we’re seeing close to two thousand people a year, mostly for help and advice with benefits claims and dealing with increasing levels of debt. We’re trying to reduce costs, we have recently been given some funding from the DWP and we’re lobbying local councillors for more money. Sheila Wheeler, the previous leader of Somerset County Council, suggested that we rely on the ‘Big Society’ – we use volunteers in all our branches anyway, but paid members of staff are essential to make sure that all advice given is the right advice. These paid members of staff and their expertise is indispensible. He is asked if the DWP funding will compromise the advice given or mean that the CAB can no longer be critical of the DWP, but we are assured that this is not the case, ‘we will continue to criticise where appropriate.’
As the floor opens for questions Tessa Munt, ex Lib Dem MP and Councillor for Wells, makes the point that it isn’t the Somerset CC Finance Directors who are financially incompetent, it is the Conservatives who are financially incompetent. She says, ‘We mustn’t let them shift the blame for this. It is their policies that have caused this catastrophe.’ She also makes the point that the CAB save the community vast sums of money each year by helping their clients to negotiate the benefits system and claim what is theirs. This in turn feeds directly into the local economy. In Somerset alone, the work of the CAB is bringing £30 million extra revenue. That money is spent locally. A woman who says that she works in drug and alcohol services tells the audience that she is seeing an epidemic of homelessness, hopelessness, premature deaths and street based sex workers. In a devastating remark she tells us that women are resorting to sex work to fund school uniforms for their children, to pay utility bills and to buy necessities when swingeing sanctions have been applied to their benefits for the smallest of reasons. Another man, a Union Press Officer from Yeovil, talked about anger, ‘We need more anger, people are too busy just getting by. We need to get angry on their behalf. There’s a lot of suffering going on out there.’
After the break Adam Boyden, Lib Dem Mendip District Councillor and prospective Parliamentary Candidate, is introduced. He talks about work he has been involved in locally, preventing bailiffs from evicting local families, working to get GP appointments easier to access and championing ‘Health Connections’. He contends that Frome Town Council have the ability to raise council tax locally and that this could help to save the beleaguered Sure Start/Get Set centres. He advises lobbying the local council and councillors.
Dave Clark, Chair of the Somerton and Frome CLP speaks next. He makes the point that the only solution to the current devastation is to ‘Get the Tories Out’ – we need to get Jeremy Corbyn into No. 10. We need a socialist government, working for all, and then we need to save the planet. There are no jobs on a dead planet. People need to be empowered to make a difference. He tells us about plans to ‘join the dots’ nationally, ‘We are joining the People’s Assembly campaign, sponsored by the Daily Mirror, called Britain is Broke. It launches on Wednesday 29th November and we’ve been promised a reporter here in Frome because they want to look at how austerity affects smaller towns as well as big cities.’ He continues, ‘we need to be lobbying councils hard. We need to be out there campaigning. Austerity is a choice. It’s class war. We have to push back…’
John Clarke is the Green County Councillor for Frome. He’s been campaigning hard at County Council level for an end to austerity and a fairer deal for local people. He urges everyone to go online and fill in the consultation form for the local Sure Start/Get Set services. The consultation closes on 31st December 2018 at 5pm – so be sure not to miss the deadline.
Finally, there are more questions from the floor. Damon Hooton for the Lib Dems is asked about our local MP, David Warburton. He describes him as ‘like all things to all people. He’s like a jelly – you prod him and he shifts position.’ A quick look at his voting record (www.theyworkforyou.com) tells you all you need to know about this would-be Tory nice guy – not so nice after all, as it turns out. Damon is asked about Mendip DC and the Saxonvale site in the centre of Frome. He tells us that Mendip DC invested £6 million to buy the site and that it will be developed, with a view to making a profit, by 2023. The space will include social housing, communal green space by the river, possibly a pedestrian bridge over the river and retail and commercial space. When pressed he gives a figure of around 23% for social housing, which most people in the audience seem happy with. Affordable housing is clearly not what is being discussed here. We are talking council housing for local families. Damon is further pressed on the rather shadowy ‘Phoenix Sponsorship Board’ – an off shoot of Mendip DC which appears to have sworn him to secrecy. He can tell us that they are a property development arm of Mendip and are currently investing in shopping centres in the UK in order to take advantage of ‘rock bottom interest rates’. It is also true that ‘business confidentiality’ of the PSB means that press and the public are excluded from their meetings – even though taxpayers would ultimately be responsible for footing the bill should these ‘property dealings’ go awry. As Richard Chisnall for Labour points out, ‘if they (PSB) are taking risks on our behalf shouldn’t we have the right to ask questions?’.
The final comments of the evening go to Tessa Munt, who demands to know why council tax has not been raised by the Conservative Council in Somerset for the past six years, ‘It’s been six years now with no increase – which is in effect a freeze on Council Tax. This has translated into a loss of £93 million, which directly causes loss of funding county-wide for vital public services: police stations, GP surgeries, schools, hospitals, social care, children’s services, drug and alcohol services, CAB, Fair Frome, libraries, transport – the list goes on. Make no mistake, this is caused by political dogma and ideology. She tells us angrily, ‘This Conservative government have been squeezing, squeezing, squeezing. There’s nothing left.’
Pre- 2009 Somerset was in reasonably good shape financially. There were financial reserves. Now these are gone. The Tories have ideologically, and quite systematically, set about destroying the fabric of society. They have very nearly achieved their aim. Maggie Thatcher’s dystopian vision has been realised. The poorest and most vulnerable will pay the cost – often with their lives. This county and the country are devasted and it is about to get much worse. Just ask Philip Alston.