Article published: Sunday, March 10th 2013
Manchester City Council voted for £80 million cuts and 900 job losses over the next two years as council leader Sir Richard Leese warned that austerity could last beyond 2018.
The new £80m cuts programme means that by 2015 the council’s budget will have been effectively cut by 37 per cent of its pre-austerity level – an amount comparable to cutting the council’s entire adult social care budget.
The budget entails the loss of up to 900 more council jobs and by 2015 the council will have lost 30 per cent of its pre-austerity workforce. Other items include:
- The merger and wholesale restructure of children’s and adult’s services and a 13 per cent funding cut to save £41.5m
- A loss of £3.4m to the council’s “supporting people” housing services impacting accommodation centres, hostels and rehousing support. Drug and alcohol services will lose £1.8m
- Swimming Bath closures in Levenshulme, Miles Platting and Moston
- Library closures in Levenshulme, Fallowfield, Burnage, Miles Platting, New Moston and Northenden
- A 3.7 per cent council tax hike. Government cuts to council tax benefit are expected to leave up to a quarter of the city worse off.
The council also plans a £310.6m capital programme in 2013/14. Spending includes £15.7m on the relocation of the Cornerhouse and Library Theatre to First Street, £7.7m on the Brunswick housing PFI and £13.2m for the redevelopment of St Peter’s square.
New swimming pools are planned for Beswick in 2014 and Levenshulme and Chorlton in 2015.
The remainder will come from receipts from reserves, contributions and the council selling off land and buildings. The total “capital financing cost” to the council over the next two years will be just under £52m.
“Enough is enough”
In the ensuing debate both Labour and Manchester’s nine-strong Liberal Democrat rump blamed one another for the cuts while agreeing that £80m had to be found. Both also shared an ideal of Manchester as a regeneration city in a race to capture private investment in new digital and high tech industries.
The “graph of doom” flashed on a slide above the council chamber however predicted that by 2018 cuts would mean no money for any services bar the council’s legal obligations toward adult and children’s services, capital costs and levies to pay for waste and transport.
Sarcastic cheers rang out from the gallery when Finance lead member Councillor Jeff Smith lectured the Lib Dems about their colleagues in government, crying “enough is enough”. But onlookers directed scorn to both sides throughout the meeting, chanting “just say no” and shouting “hypocrite” when council leader Sir Richard Leese said his priority was protecting the vulnerable.
Baths and libraries
Levenshulme protestors cheered as Gorton councillor Julie Reid called for the council to save all the city’s facilities and praised Levenshulme Baths as the most diverse in Manchester. “Transgender, gay men, nudist groups, Asian women’s groups” all used the pool she said, hastily adding “though not at the same time obviously.”
Boos and shouts of “shame on you” rang out as the council passed the £80m budget. Lib Dem proposals to accept a council tax freeze and save money through cutting consultants and making use of the city’s art collections were branded “dishonest” by Labour councillors and voted down.
Labour councillors’ amendments to delay the closure of local facilities and consider new methods of funding were accepted. Proposals included using public health funds to keep Levenshulme Baths open and exploring plans to convert New Moston’s Broadway Baths into a co-op.
Interestingly, although asking the council to vote down Lib Dem amendments, Richard Leese left the vote on his own backbenchers’ requests unwhipped.
Speaking over heckles at the back of the hall, Leese denied that setting an illegal no-cuts budget was a viable option. Chaos would ensue as government officials would impose cuts from Whitehall he argued, and said cities such as Liverpool had taken over a decade to recover from their rate-capping rebellion against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The months leading up to the budget have been marked by marches, protests and complaints over consultations. Levenshulme campaigners have twice occupied their threatened library and baths, and staged a dancing flash mob wearing Richard Leese masks in Albert Square.
When asked by Mule if the process had been democratic, Leese said people attending the budget discussion had witnessed what was “clearly a very strong and very combative debate” among councillors. “There’s nothing going through on the nod here today”, he added, “There was a very real debate about very important issues.”
He was blunt in response to where he saw Manchester by the end of 2018. “I think austerity’s going to be longer than that”, he said. However, he insisted that “notwithstanding the recession” the city’s regeneration had made “significant” progress over the last decade as measured by improving deprivation statistics.
Leese claimed Manchester “will do better than survive and it will thrive as a city but I don’t think it’s going to be easy…What we’ve got between now and 2018 is a hell of a battle but if the council and the people of the city work together then there are battles we can win.”
Big Society fears
Some onlookers were scathing about the council debate. “They were grinning,” said Levenshulme campaigner Sue McPherson. “It’s not money pushed around in a council machine. It’s real people’s lives.”
The campaigners present were critical of what they saw as an attempt by the council to bring in “Big Society” style facilities paid for by staff pay cuts. “We’re not going to be a volunteer workforce” declared McPherson, who argued volunteer-run centres were “not a solution.”
“We want public services to remain open” added fellow protestor Aiden Lawler. “There’s hundreds of people saying the same thing every meeting.”
Consultations over library and leisure services will continue into April.
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