Sunday 4 October 2015

Communities under pressure need public services not council cuts

Last Thursday, hundreds of angry residents packed into the Honor Oak Community Centre to attend a meeting called to discuss the violent death of two teenagers on the Turnham estate in the last few weeks. 

There was plenty of emotion on display, as well as anger - anger at the loss of life, at the lack of support for the family of local victim Shaquan, and at the pressures facing the local community as a whole.

Many different contributions were made from both invited speakers and from people in the audience. Concerns about racism and about knife-crime amongst black youth in particular featured significantly throughout the evening. 

Lee Jasper, opening the meeting, pointed to the racism still ingrained in our society evidenced by the disproportionately high levels of poverty and unemployment facing black communities. The mother of the black teenager shot at Streatham Ice Rink back in 2007 talked tearfully of the wasted lives of both the victims and the youth behind bars facing indeterminate sentences for 'joint enterprise'.

A common theme raised was the decline in 'social solidarity', in opportunities for communities to work together, of the need for fathers to engage with their sons. However, some of the most powerful contributions focused on the collective pressures on families struggling to make a living and to support their children while services were cut and real incomes were falling.

A young man, Marlon, delivered an angry diatribe to the local politicians on the panel, pointing to the cuts to Sure Start, Connexions and Youth Services. He complained about 'gentrification' and plans to build more housing on the estate, supposedly social housing but, as a young woman behind me shouted out, "it's NOT affordable!".

A young woman speaking on behalf of Shaquan's mother Sharon, pointed to the reality facing so many working parents, not least Sharon herself. Sharon hadn't been able to stop to grieve; she had no choice but to carry on working at her local hairdressers to pay her rent. This was an estate where most people were in work, but where too many had to rely on food banks because of low pay. Turning to Lewisham Cabinet member Janet Daby, who had offered little more than the need to 'give youth wisdom' and the importance of 'Operation Black Vote', the young woman said pointedly, "why should we vote, when we don't trust you?" adding, "why should youth talk to the police when they don't trust them either?"

Needed - a Party that will fight cuts and racism

Alienated and angry communities like this urgently need a Party that can earn their trust by showing that they are genuinely prepared to fight poverty and racism, by refusing to carry out Tory cuts, fighting for a £10 an hour minimum wage and ending the housing policies that are leading to the 'social cleansing' of working -class communities across London.

Will a Corbyn-led Labour provide that Party? As things stand locally, it appears not. Councillors offered condolences and fine words but little more. Newly-elected local Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft offered even less, replying to the young residents with the excuse that "the political reality is that it's the Conservative Government's cuts". That was meant with shouts of derision and the MP sat down silently for the rest of the meeting.

A Lewisham Council Officer had earlier spoken to the meeting about what the Council were doing to help with 'crime reduction'. Yet, as part of the £40 million of cuts made last year, Lewisham Council chopped £1 million from its Crime Reduction Budget! Worse, its report on one of those cuts spelt out bluntly what such a cut would mean to black youth in particular: "As young men from BME communities are over represented in the criminal justice system the impact there is likely to be increased". 

Not surprisingly, the Officer also didn't reveal the further  'savings proposal' to her service discussed at the previous night's Mayor and Cabinet meeting. It suggested a possible further £2.5 million cut in the 'Crime Reduction and Supporting People' budget that will mean "reduced support for mental health, learning disability and single homeless clients" which might lead to "a rise in Anti Social Behaviour on the streets" - in their words, not mine!

That's just one cut amongst a further £45 million planned over the next two years - from a Council budget that has already been slashed by £120M - one-third - since 2010. That could include a further £6M from Adult Social Care, £3.6M from Environmental Services, £1M more cut from grants to voluntary sector organisations, £300K further cuts to Youth Services and £1M cut more from the libraries budget.

Already, however, it's clear that trade unionists and communities are getting prepared to fight those cuts. A Lobby of the next Mayor and Cabinet meeting discussing the budget, on Wednesday December 9th, is being planned. A Save Lewisham Libraries website has been launched explaining why the plans for more volunteer-run 'community libraries' has to be opposed. UNISON members are asking supporters to sign their online petition and attend the first public consultation meeting on the library cuts, on Wednesday 7th October, 7.30pm at the Broadway Theatre in Catford.

Fight the cuts, instead of just voting for them!

I hope the anger shown at the meeting sent the politicians who attended home to think again about their role in passing on Tory cuts. Labour councillors can't claim to stand against racism and poverty while they preside over cuts to communities that already have their backs to the wall.

As TUSC and the Socialist Party have explained, Labour councillors could choose to lead a fight, instead of just meekly passing on cuts. If they did, they would get massive support - including from embittered and embattled communities like those on the Turnham estate. For example, the council unions across Glasgow Council have come together to demand their councillors say 'No More Cuts'. I'll leave the final word to those unions - but theirs is a rallying cry that needs to be repeated by trade unions and communities across England, Scotland and Wales: 

"Politicians have a choice – make the Tory cuts or do not. We call on all elected politicians in the city to use all available financial mechanisms to hold-off any further cuts whilst leading a fight to win more money for the city. The council could use some of its reserves and borrowing powers, supported by the legal financial process of “capitalisation”, to ... allow time and space to build a mass campaign of elected councillors, trade unions, user groups and local communities with the objective of winning more money from the Holyrood and Westminster governments. There is plenty of money in our economy – it is just in the wrong hands or lying in the bank accounts of big business. The trade unions will support any council politician or council political grouping who adopts this strategy of “No More Cuts”.

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