Activists and unions come together in Birmingham to resist municipal devastation

Morning Star editor BEN CHACKO attends a vibrant meeting bringing together anti-cuts campaigns and local unions to co-ordinate a fightback against the biggest cuts faced by any city in the country

ACTIVISTS from unions and anti-cuts campaigns launched Brum Rise Up at the weekend in a bid to co-ordinate resistance to the devastating council cuts planned for the city.

The packed meeting at the Birmingham & Midland Institute was brought together by a “coalition of coalitions” with the People’s Assembly, representatives from specific campaigns against the closures of libraries, youth centres and adult social care facilities and local trade union leaders.

Kate Taylor of Birmingham People’s Assembly said Brum Rise Up would provide “a collective platform … where we can fight back together through organising protest and action to raise the profile of all our campaigns.

“We’re demanding a reversal of the cuts and the devastation they will bring. A plan for the restoration of jobs, services and culture, a plan to protect our assets and a plan for the government to increase council funding across the country.”

Birmingham, the biggest council in Europe, declared bankruptcy last year. Commissioners have been brought in — paid £1,100-1,200 a day, put up in hotels at the local authority’s expense — to decide what to cut, what to keep and what to flog. “We’re paying them to destroy our city,” veteran local communist Andy Chaffer says.

The shadow of the lead commissioner Max Caller — “Max the Axe” as he is already known for his brutal approach to service cuts at other councils — loomed large.

Caller has no sympathy with councils running out of money, stating that they are in “a disaster of their own making.”

But as Taylor (above) stressed, “while Birmingham Council has made mistakes it is by no means solely to blame for this bankruptcy. It’s not to blame for Croydon Council going bankrupt, or Hackney or Northamptonshire.

“It’s not to blame when one in five councils are due to go bankrupt, when 50 per cent of councils are in ‘significant financial distress.’ Fourteen years of government austerity has brought us to this place. The government published a cross-party report this year called Financial Distress in Local Authorities which recognises that there is a £4 billion gap in funding for councils.”

Councils are struggling to deliver basic services right across Britain, but with Birmingham the biggest, its cuts programme could become a template — as, more positively, could a successful resistance movement.

Unison Birmingham branch joint secretary Tracey Mooney outlined the scale of the problem: £300 million in planned spending cuts over two years combined with a 21 per cent rise in council tax.

“This is the greatest cut any local authority has attempted to implement. We know the scale of the cuts to various service areas: £21.9m in adult social care, affecting social care, social workers, day centres and home care. £57m affecting education, early years, SEND [special educational needs and disabilities].

“Housing, £5.8m, that’s a cut to homelessness [services] and housing management. Libraries face a cut of £2.3m, with the threat to close up to 25 libraries.”

Mooney said three main factors have driven the financial crisis: huge cuts to government grants to councils since 2010, amounting to £1 billion taken out of Birmingham since then in grant reductions; the rising demand for council services, with ever-increasing spending on adult social care, children’s services and to house the homeless, because of the Tory government’s policy failures in all those areas; and inflation, massively increasing councils’ costs.

At least 60 councils across Britain face financial crisis in the next 12 months, putting claims that Birmingham Council has got itself here by mismanagement in context, though Mooney and other speakers also referenced poor decisions by the council, including a £100m failed HR computer system and a focus on “prestige projects” rather than measures to help working-class neighbourhoods.

She also challenged the “myth” that women workers’ equal pay claims have caused the crisis: “Not a single penny of the £300m is going to address equal pay.

“Fiona Greenway, the council’s finance director, has stated to Unison that if there was a zero equal pay liability Birmingham would still be facing £300m of cuts.

“There is going to be a drastic impact on citizens,” Mooney stressed, pointing to threats to close the day centre for adults with learning difficulties where she works.

It’s proposed that “we can all move to Moseley, we can all move to Hockley — completely the other side of the city, four or five miles away.”

Unison members in Birmingham would not take the removal of vital local services lying down: “Look out for us when we are chained to the gates and we’ve occupied the building! We will be fighting,” she said to cheers.

GMB West Midlands senior organiser Stuart Richards said the union would be announcing strike dates for the women who have campaigned for equal pay this week, and the need for other workers to rally in their support.

“Hold not just the council leadership to account, but the government. Part of the problem is to make sure that councils are funded enough to tackle issues like pay discrimination, but also to rebuild.

“We’re going to have to stand together and make sure that we’re heard — I want to see a political leader, an MP, a councillor, somebody who’s willing to stand up and say, this is my plan for rebuilding Birmingham. And so far I’ve not seen one person doing that.”

After speeches, the meeting broke into groups where activists discussed campaigns in different areas: housing, adult social care, youth services, libraries and more. Each session was led by people already involved in a campaign in that sector, and reported back to the room on priorities at the end.

“Brummy legend” and working-class historian Carl Chinn called for a revival of civic pride and pointed to the history of working-class culture delivered through the city’s municipal services, including through the Birmingham & Midland institute itself, an adult education centre opened in 1854.

In the 1840s Birmingham had been a city with “no facilities for the working class. No free libraries, no free parks, no swimming baths.” In the 21st century people should not be going back to that.

Taylor told the Morning Star the “fantastic” event would be “the beginning of a movement of people in Birmingham, who will actively and passionately campaign to save our services, our culture, and all the things that make our city brilliant.”

She said the group would next mobilise for a May Day! Save Our Services demo planned for May 6 in Centenary Square.

A view from the campaigners

GABRIEL DYKER, violinist, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
“The orchestra was founded in 1919 with a grant from the council, designed to be a part of Birmingham’s civic, social and cultural welfare, the first publicly funded orchestra in Britain.
“Yet today in the sixth wealthiest nation in the world we apparently no longer have money to invest in culture.”
Cuts would mean raising ticket prices, making music less accessible: “Everybody should be able to come and enjoy culture with no financial barrier.”

CHRIS SEELEY, Save Birmingham Youth Services
“The council is basically slaughtering the youth service. The whole lot is going to go.
“The campaign [against this] has been brilliant in terms of profile, people are aware of it, but so far it hasn’t made any difference.
“I think we’ve got to take it on a piece by piece basis — whether it’s a library or a youth centre [earmarked for closure], get out and protest for that particular centre, target those councillors, because they are not fighting hard enough for the service.”

EMMA LOCHERY, Friends of Kings Heath Library
“We are campaigning to keep our community library open and run by trained library staff as part of an effective, city-wide library service.
“We are building an umbrella campaign, Birmingham Loves Libraries, which will launch in the second week of May. No to the cuts, keep our libraries open!
“Organising around their local library is giving many people a tangible view of the wider devastation these cuts will cause, it forces people to think about what it means to live in a bankrupt city and gives them a way to argue back to break that sense of inevitability around the cuts.”