Austerity: public sector cuts in Sheffield

by Barry Biddulph

Cuts in public services, jobs and wages have arrived in Sheffield.

Housing workers in Sheffield Homes, Sheffield council’s housing organisation, have seen the future. A shortfall or cut of £4.2 million has appeared in the housing budget for 2010/11. More cuts will follow in 2011/12. No accounts which an accountant would recognise have been put forward. Instead guesstimates of huge sums of money have been conjured up to suggest savings at the expense of jobs, wages and services.For instance an extension of the job freeze and lack of recruitment might save £600,000 as staff leave for other jobs. But what other jobs?  The number of Job opportunities has slowed down and will surely become only a trickle as the cuts bite.

Other planes have been suggested to save thousands of pounds in slashing services, or rather ‘redesigning’ services, in management jargon. One saving advocated by Peter Morton, the Director of Sheffield Homes is aimed at the low paid. If the lowest paid workers on each salary scale, which is the majority of the staff, voluntarily give up their increment or progression up the wage scale, this would save £700,000 this financial year 2010/11. The  increment would be lost and not regained. And there is no guarantee that jobs would not be slashed anyway. Even voluntary severance might not be adequate. And there is no spare money to make voluntary severance financially attractive.

There are twelve top bosses who earn more than £50,000. An increment freeze will not cause pain at the top. One comment in the staff suggestion box is to let the big earners take the full brunt of the cuts. Obviously this will not be acted on, but the workers on the lowest wage bands are expected to discriminate against themselves.

Senior management tactics have been to attempt to stampede staff into accepting the increment freeze or breaking their own contract of employment.There has also been an attempt to undermine the consultation process with the trade unions, by appealing directly to staff as individuals in an online survey in the context of fear mongering about job losses.  At a meeting on the 21st of January, the unions were given until the 5th of February to agree to the increment freeze. The unions’ response has been slow. The local leaders and regional officers of UNISON and GMB  simply reacted by insisting on consultation through procedure. No meetings of unions members were called, leaving management with the initiative. Management meetings were called to get over the management view. These were small local meetings to keep control and avoid one large staff meeting.

But the management online survey of staff views following briefings by management seem to have alarmed at least one UNISON regional officer who backed up the call for a mass meeting of Sheffield Homes staff from housing shop stewards. The stewards’ meeting then unanimously called for a mass meeting to be held in the city centre. No doubt the official wanted a bargaining counter and needed to send a signal that proper procedures should be followed. But any fight back will be from a very low base of collective activity. Trade union delays and avoidance of strike ballots, plus the lack of trade union and branch meetings and the absence of publicity have been a prominent feature of recent years. There has been no collective tradition of fighting back. Anything from the grassroots has been frustrated in procedures designed to avoid damaging the partnership between employers and unions or class collaboration policies. To stop these austerity proposals we need to reinvigorate grassroots opposition.

The future of Sheffield Homes as a council ALMO, or Arms length management organisation, is in doubt anyway once the modernisation process has ended, probably in 2012. The New Labour government provided money to modernise council Housing in Sheffield and elsewhere not direct to Councils, but indirectly to ALMOs to facilitate housing transfer to non-council providers. Modernised council dwellings are more attractive to alternative landlords. In that sense, ALMOs are a halfway house. Sheffield Homes will be out on an unviable limb when the modernisation process is complete. This process is part of the dismantling of the council homes sector. The fall in capital expenditure on council housing has declined dramatically in recent decades along with a huge drop in the building of new council rented homes. What has not been lost to right to buy has been lost to government induced housing transfer: more than 70000 council homes have been transferred from council ownership. Council rents have been artificially jacked up at a time when more and more people in Sheffield and elsewhere desperately need cheap rented housing.