‘The Leader has said very clearly that, despite the grim financial outlook, she is not prepared to manage decline. That is a very bold statement given the Herculean battle facing local government over the next three years and beyond.’
Nick Walkley, Foreword, Corporate Plan
As a fish rots from the head, the corrosive cynicism that permeates Haringey Council can be traced to its most senior figures, Chief Executive Nick Walkley and Council Leader Claire Kober. In the hectic 10 week period between the December announcement in the draft corporate plan and three year budget of drastic cuts in Council spending and the endorsement of these proposals at a full council meeting on 23 February, we heard repeated declarations from the Council Leader and her fellow councillors about their determination not to manage decline. Neither Walkley nor Kober are prepared to manage decline – yet both have approved a budget that will reduce Haringey’s spending by about a quarter, inevitably resulting in a decline in services. The only Herculean battle that has taken place in Haringey is that between the Council and its most vulnerable residents – people with dementia and disabilities, people with autism, learning disabilities and mental health problems – who have been targeted to bear the brunt of the proposed spending cuts.
Cllr Kober has repeatedly proclaimed her commitment to ‘being honest with residents’ over the Council’s budget proposals. But where is the honesty in presenting drastic cuts as measures that will ‘transform’ services, empower residents and enhance the independence of people with disabilities? Rhetoric about the ‘transformation journey’ (Walkley) and the ‘transformational approach’ (Kober) echoes throughout Haringey Council documents promoting the cuts – from the Medium Term Financial Statement to the Corporate Plan to the three year budget plan. Indeed, the transformational rhetoric is at its most florid in the more internal documents, where phrases such as ‘building better partnerships’, ‘building community resilience’, ‘engaging with residents differently’, ‘prevention and early intervention’, ‘seamless access to information’ are accompanied by proposals for cuts which effectively undermine all these aspirations. It sometimes seems that this rhetorical bluster arises from the need of senior officers and politicians to justify the cuts to themselves, or at least to help to shield them from acknowledging the consequences of these measures.
When they turn to write documents aimed at the public, Council leaders tend to cut back on the ‘transformational’ verbiage and try to appeal to local residents to share responsibility for ‘difficult decisions’ and ‘hard choices’ resulting from budgetary constraints imposed on the Council by the Coalition government. ‘It sounds a bleak picture doesn’t it?’ writes Cllr Kober, adopting a conversational tone in the Council’s official consultation document, pleading that ‘we have to live within our means’. But the people who will be obliged to restrict further their already restricted lives as a result of these reduced ‘means’ will not be the Council leaders, but those who depend on Council social care services.
The consultation document reflects the gulf between the ‘vision’ for the ‘council of the future’ projected by the Council leaders and the realities of austerity. Thus it offers to ‘empower all adults to live healthy, long and fulfilling lives’ and even promises ‘to improve the availability of day centres’ – and then proceeds to announce plans to close three day centres for the elderly, including specialist dementia services. It does not even mention proposals to close three out of four day centres for people with learning disabilities, including the only dedicated autism service.
The 23 February Council meeting that voted in favour of the cuts reflected the bad faith that has permeated the budget debate. The leader of the Council, seated to the right of the mayor, who chaired the meeting, (assisted by the chief executive, seated to her left) made her now familiar speech about the unprecedented financial difficulties facing the Council and asserted that there was no alternative to the proposed budget. The leadership line was dutifully followed by Cabinet members Jason Arthur and Peter Morton. Both fast-tracked into prominent roles following their arrival on the Council last May, these aspiring Labour politicians – ‘pound-shop Tony Blairs’ according to one voice from the public gallery – acted out their roles as lightning rods, deflecting public protest from the leadership. Cllr Gideon Bull, a Haringey George Galloway, ranted and raved about the perfidy of the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the bankers. He spoke of sleepless nights and tough challenges – and then mumbled his capitulation to the leadership in such haste that few in the public gallery realised that his preposterous performance extinguished the last hope of resistance from the Labour group.
All rumours of possible revolts in the Labour ranks came to naught as Labour councillors, several smirking offensively at the deputations representing the victims of these proposals, voted unanimously for the cuts. Perhaps the councillor who best captured the spirit of Haringey’s Labour Council and its contempt for local people was Cabinet member Cllr Joe Goldberg who declared:
‘I am absolutely proud to be voting for this budget. It represents a democratic socialist agenda. We will continue to deliver a Labour agenda here in Haringey.’
The only significant resistance in the council chamber came from the Liberal Democrats – who hold only 9 (to Labour’s 48) Council seats. Ably led by Pippa Connor, they tried to salvage day centres for the elderly and those with learning disabilities, children’s centres and youth services, but all their amendments fell to the monolithic Labour majority. They were open to the Labour leader’s objection that their proposals amounted only to ‘tinkering around the edges’ of the budget rather presenting a coherent alternative. They were even more vulnerable to Labour charges that the predicament faced by the Council was a direct result of measures imposed by the Coalition government, which includes the Liberal Democrats.
Labour councillors were not slow to point out that local MP Lynne Featherstone, a vocal critic of the Council’s proposals, is a Coalition minister who voted in support of all the government’s austerity measures. Nor did Haringey’s councillors come under any pressure from Catherine West, prospective Labour Party challenger to Lynne Featherstone in the forthcoming general election – and currently bookies’ favourite to succeed her. Until recently leader of Islington Council, she seemed more sympathetic to the position of the council leadership than to the predicament of those facing the cuts.
Campaigners against the cuts were obliged to look outside the political mainstream for support. Both Gordon Peters, chair of the Older People’s Forum, prospective parliamentary candidate for the Greens in Hornsey and Wood Green, and Jenny Sutton, prospective parliamentary candidate for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition in Tottenham, have taken a consistent stand against Haringey Council cuts. No doubt voters will remember this when they go to the polls in May.
Michael Fitzpatrick, 1 March 2015