As campaigning mounts for local council elections in May, Pete Chalk reflects on prospects for Haringey’s incoming Labour councillors
Now the dust has settled, it looks like Haringey’s new council in May will have a majority of councillors from the left, with a mountain to climb. Cuts in the budget since 2010 amount to 40% or £160m, with a further £15m cuts to be made in 2018/19. It is operating with 45% fewer staff and many services have been outsourced. Estates need regeneration, there are 9,700 homeless people in temporary accommodation and 10,000 on the housing waiting list.
Haringey will no doubt be faced with a hostile government and already the right wing press are setting up the borough to fail by labelling it, gleefully, ‘the first Corbyn Council’ – led by the right wing ‘news’ website ‘OnLondon’, which ‘revealed’ the proposal made by one Labour party member that salaries over £60k should be cut – a proposal that never cleared the first round of ward meetings!
In fact, the proposals made by the majority of Labour members in Haringey are fairly realistic – given the scale of the problems we face, this is hardly surprising. For example, there is acceptance of the government limit on council tax rises (5.99% this year, being implemented by the vast majority of councils of all persuasions) and a rejection of any notion of the ‘no cuts budget’ sought by hard left groups. An additional proposal is for a Fairness Commission, similar to others elsewhere, to start a genuine community consultation over a possible referendum on a higher council tax increase in 2019/20.
In addition, mindful of the disaster in Northamptonshire (a Tory borough slavishly following government policy and going bankrupt) there are several suggestions on how to avoid this happening in Haringey. For example, their policy of outsourcing everything Carillion/Capita style, the folly of the new Council HQ and the freezing of council tax all contributed to Northants’ problems – and all have been the policy of Haringey Council, hopefully soon to be reversed. Perhaps the most damning criticism of Northants came from one of their own backbenchers, quoted as saying the financial crisis is the result of a “secretive and dysfunctional leadership”. Certainly this has been the case in Haringey, with its own Scrutiny Committee levelling a similar charge against the cabinet leadership. Arguably, this is what turned the tide against the now infamous HDV (Haringey Development Vehicle: £2bn 20-year partnership with LendLease) – the fact that even Labour councillors had no idea of what deals were being made.
But ‘what is the alternative?’ is the question the right wing continually ask of the left. The answer is to look for inspiration from what is happening in other Labour councils faced with similar levels of cuts and hardship. For example, neighbouring boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Enfield have this year started relatively ambitious programmes of social housing. In Haringey the new plan is to build 250 new council homes a year – using a housing revenue surplus of £17m to raise £49m capital and Right-To-Buy receipts of £11m we still hold (after some £21m was returned to central government by the last council). In addition, the new council will pursue a far more aggressive policy of planning gain following the example of councils such as Hackney – demanding a much greater proportion of social housing in any new build. Innovative solutions such as Community Land Trusts can bring in new money for social housing – supported by the London Mayor and housing bond issues.
So, there is an alternative. Not only in housing, but in other services, by ending outsourcing as other Labour councils have done, saving the money that otherwise goes into profits and dividends to shareholders. We hope to follow the example of Preston and other councils by boosting the local economy – setting up our own housing and energy companies, professionalising an in-house carer workforce, employing Haringey residents, buying from local suppliers and so on. The Barker Commission has shown how social care costs can be cut by integrating local health and social care contracts, seeing the sector as a positive local economy rather than a ‘drain on resources’ as the right would have it.
In fact, this is what is so special about the new generation of councillors – we are prepared to look at radical, but realistic, alternatives to austerity and privatisation. The ‘first Corbyn Council’ will be under close scrutiny and will get no support from the government or mainstream media – and already we have seen seventy plus Labour council leaders line up against the NEC call for mediation between left and right – so we are under no illusion as to the enormity of the task ahead.