The £120m of budget cuts sought by Cambridgeshire County Council over the next five years, with around £48m likely to be made in the year 2016/17 alone on the latest reports, will have a devastating effect on communities in Cambridgeshire, affecting social care, help for children at risk, library provision, and other services on which we rely (see our statement of December).
They come after over £60m of government-imposed cutbacks over the last two years, the effects of which are already being felt across the county. According to the Trussell Trust's statistics for the east of England, 100,908 people had recourse to a foodbank in the 2014/15 financial year. In the parish of Soham alone, 447 people used the foodbank at least once during 2015. The effects of the government's austerity policies are not hard to see. Yet with a Conservative government driving through relentless rounds of unnecessary and vindictive spending cuts, Soham's Tory MP is effectively powerless.
Working to the bottom of its last package of cuts, the County Council switched off streetlights after midnight, risking the safety of residents; in the new package, it proposed to end school crossing patrols, affecting children's safety on their way to and from school. A campaign in Cambridge to keep the streetlights on led its Labour City Council to step in with funding, and after widespread community opposition and petitioning, the county's crossing wardens will keep their jobs. The councillors clearly sensed the potential for a groundswell of opposition to these deeply unpopular cuts.
These cuts, however, were just the tip of the iceberg, running to the hundreds of thousands of pounds. The County Council is looking to cut £120m in total. These cutbacks will again hit communities across our county. Public libraries could be closed, or seriously scaled back, in Cambridge, Chatteris, Ely, Huntingdon, March, Ramsey, Soham, St. Neots, Wisbech, and Whittlesey. Bus fares are likely to shoot up after statutory concessions are abolished, making it harder for people to travel around and further increasing the cost of living. The BBC predicts that £10m will be axed from the Council’s care budget (see a BBC News article of 26 October), leaving vulnerable children and young adults at serious risk. The fact is that our county councillors cannot account for what the real impact of cuts on this scale will be.
It's the same story up and down the country. Even the Conservative-dominated Local Government Association (LGA) started to feel the pressure after George Osborne cut £18bn from the central government grant to local councils. The Conservative peer and chair of the LGA, Gary Porter, commented that 'even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children's centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres, and turned off every street light, they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020' (see a Guardian article of 25 November). In Oxfordshire, where prime minister David Cameron is MP for Witney, Mr Cameron had the temerity to write a letter to the Conservative leader of its County Council, complaining of proposed cuts to day centres for the elderly, libraries, and museums. As Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell remarked, Mr Cameron should have written to his next-door neighbour in Downing Street instead!
The Cambridge People's Assembly has organized a protest for midday on Saturday 13 February, ahead of the key County Council meeting on Tuesday 16 February which seems likely to end in deadlock. (The Council has split three ways on the question of raising council tax, and if it cannot pass a budget either in this meeting or in an emergency meeting on 19 February, central government will intervene to set one.) Protesters from local trade unions, political parties, and community groups will rally in Market Square on Saturday 13, before marching to rally again at the County Council offices at Shire Hall.
It's time to turn the tide against Conservative austerity. Join the Cambridge People's Assembly and others to protest the Cambridgeshire cuts on Saturday.