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Newcastle Labour council £100m budget cuts

On Wednesday 6 March, Newcastle City Council voted through cuts of £100m to local services, to heckles and boos from a packed public gallery. A video screen had been set up in another room for those who could not fit into the council chamber, but many people walked out in disgust as the Labour councillors wrung their hands and tried to justify their actions.

When it came to the vote not one Labour councillor opposed the cuts. This budget has received both local and national criticism, with controversy centring on the 100% cut to arts funding and the closure of local libraries, alongside a 100% cut to youth and play services and other cuts affecting respite centres for the families of disabled people, swimming pools and leisure centres, parks and bin collections. The council has ignored widespread opposition from local communities which culminated in 1,500-strong demonstration on 16 February demanding a no-cuts budget.

Following the council vote, Labour leader Nick Forbes was quick to turn to the media to justify himself, stating that the council would be regarded as a ‘civic basket case’ if the cuts were not passed. He was determined to absolve himself and the Labour Party from any blame, claiming that the cuts were pushed upon him by an ‘unfair government’.

In the run up to this vote, local press have claimed that significant concessions have been made compared to the original budget proposals. The Evening Chronicle reported on both 12 and 16 February that the city’s arts budget ‘wouldn’t face a 100% reduction’. Harriet Harman, deputy Labour leader and shadow culture secretary, stated that ‘the reality is there is not going to be a 100% cut to the arts in Newcastle’ and that finance will be in the form of ‘capital funding or revenue funding’, but she could not give ‘the nitty-gritty’. The reality of this is simple: Newcastle does face a 100% cut to public funding for the arts. The funding that has been proposed to replace that of the council is a minute £600,000, provided by an independent body, funded by private philanthropists and completely unaccountable to the public.

Other services the media have reported as ‘saved’ include Castle Dene and Cheviot View respite centres. These services are used to aid carers of disabled children and adults and are vital to these families. Sky News reported that Nick Forbes had ‘removed the threat of closure’ to these services. Again, the reality is far different. A statement on the council website makes clear that the decision has merely been postponed, ‘pending further discussions with the families directly affected’. There are no guarantees that the council will not bring new proposals for closure in 2014.

Sky also reported that cuts to Newcastle’s library service have been reduced, from 18 closures to 10, with the potential for 5 of these to remain open through some form of ‘partnership’ – either privatization or dumped on the community to run with no resources but their own voluntary labour. This seems to have been the first time it has been openly stated that the council originally aimed to close 18 libraries – their official proposals released in November 2012 mentioned only 10 closures, although some council officers have given verbal indications that the real figure in councillors’ heads was 18. Now that the council have decided to close 10, this is being presented as a concession, even though this is what they said they would do all along.

It is telling that in all of these articles about amendments to the budget, not one has reported that the original budget proposed a cut of £90m, not the £100m now agreed by the council. Rather than offering the working class of Newcastle concessions, the council has intensified its attack on local communities. The budget passed is nothing short of devastating to those already faced by a vicious assault on living standards, benefits, and the looming threat of the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts in April. An utter refusal by the Labour Party to reject cuts, nationally or locally, and their consistent outpour of excuses can leave us with no illusions in their party. They do not act in the interests of the working class: they do not even listen to them.

At a What’s Next? meeting on 2nd March, 2013, organised by anti-cuts campaigners from local areas and across the city, it was clear that resistance will not stop. The budget may have been approved by the Labour party, but communities and activists across the city will not cease to oppose it. Whatever Forbes and his allies might say, the people of Newcastle do not accept his austerity measures. They will not stop fighting.

James Bell