despite ’empowerment’… people still have power

by Leo Singer

” The College principal says cuts will hit adult education”
“Services have been streamlined and centralised to curb duplication”
” increasing its council tax precept by 4.8 per cent”
“… plans to end funding for elite swimming, switch off street lights at night, cut two recycling centres and close crèches at leisure centres”
“… cutting around 70 jobs, with more to come in future years”

This is just a limited selection of headlines from the local papers all over Merseyside and Wallasey, collected this spring. Local governments are preparing us for a new era, a tightening of belts, expected after the national elections. Similar headlines are easy to find in papers all over the country. No wonder… as shit runs down.

So again, we hear echoes of Thatcher: ‘There Is No Alternative’, this time from all the three major parties. But luckily, the year 2009 brought us several surprises which show that working class people can effectively fight against austerity measures even in the crisis times. One can just mention the wildcat strikes at Lindsey oil refinery, the Visteon factory occupations of laid-off workers, parents’ occupations of schools in Glasgow and London, official and unofficial postal strikes or brave refuse workers and street cleaners in Liverpool. Another significant movement was the ‘winter of discontent’ in Wirral. Albeit shadowed by more spectacular wildcats and occupations in the national media, the Wirral case is really inspiring.

Wirral against the cuts

At the end of 2008, Wirral Borough Council announced a so-called ‘Strategic Asset Review’, planning massive cuts in public services: to close eleven libraries and forty-nine community facilities such as community and leisure centres, a museum, a theatre and swimming baths. Nine hundred jobs in social care and transport were meant to be contracted out. In this way the council planned to save £3.1 million… so that they could borrow £20 million to build new ‘state of the art’ buildings! Better not try to find any logic in it. At the same time local trade unions exposed the fact that the librarians, teachers and school head masters were banned to talk about these plans or to join any protests. However, the local politicians forgot the old saying, that you reap what you sow…

According to a quick local trade unions’ survey, the local people’s view was that libraries should be “within walking distance, places that children can get to unaccompanied if necessary to do school work, somewhere easy to get to with prams, that didn’t cost £8 a trip on two buses, a place where they could access computers and books, a community resource for all”. They wanted the council’s library resources to fulfil these local needs large centralised new builds would not.

According to Fred MacCormack, a resident from Moreton, the discontent and anger of inhabitants had been strengthened by the fact that Wirral Council was not seriously interested in hearing the opinion of local communities, which stirred them into action. Jo, who lives in Port Sunlight, recalls with enthusiasm: “It was a groundswell from the bottom up. People were writing letters, sending emails, signing petitions, discussing on Facebook, talking to their councillors, going to consultations, demonstrations. Everybody was talking about it.”
Indeed, Wirral has not seen a similar people’s mobilisation for a long time! Hundreds of protesters poured in to the session of the Council’s Culture committee disscussing the cuts in December 2008. People abhorred the superficial way the Council was planning to consult the residents. They forced the councillors to organise four consultative ‘area forums’ in Birkenhead, New Brighton, West Kirby and Port Sunlight. Despite the fact that they were all packed into one week in the beginning of January, hundreds of people attended each of these meetings. Wirral TUC estimate that all together 35,000 people took part in the consultation in some way. Let’s add to it the two mass actions in freezing January, organised by trade unions: the march to Wallasey Town Hall on 11th January and the protest at the Civic Hall a few days later. More than three thousand people joined the Facebook group ‘Save Wirral Services’.

The trade unions launched the Wirral Against the Cuts Campaign. Their goal was ‘to coordinate all the different groups, to argue for all the libraries, not just any local library and to make the case for bigger political arguments’. Elaine Jones from Wirral TUC says: “We set up organising committees at eight of eleven libraries, organised public meetings (in Eastham we had four meetings, each over two hundred people) and coordinated the input of the committees into the inquiry as well as producing our own. We organised monthly Wirral Against the Cuts committees to coordinate the activity.” Often, she could lean on members of pre-existing Friends of Libraries’ groups. One of two local groups not founded by the unions was Hoylake Library Action Group. It was set up by Barbara Kirby, resident from Hoylake, who just got a very simple idea: she put up leaflets announcing her plan to start a local group. She also informed that she would be sitting in the local library every Saturday. Eight people came to the meeting on the first Saturday alone!… Despite threats from their bosses, some librarians helped undercover the local campaigning groups, e.g. with copying leaflets at work. Fred MacCormack was actively involved in both Hoylake local group and Wallasey coordinating group. He went to both newspapers on Wirral and asked them to see reader letters concerning closures. He analysed them all. Out of 167, only one was fully and one conditionally in favour of closures.

Community asset transfers: an empowerment?

Local politicians tried to calm people down. Their alternative to the closures was for the local community to take over management and maintenance of facilities under threat. However, this vision – called Community Asset Transfer – has been rejected by the popular movement. Jo says: “I don’t feel it works. It is very difficult for people to run them on community basis. You just will get completely exhausted while trying to find funding for running these facilities. Just look at what happened with Byrne Avenue Baths!” The swimming baths was a registered charity which had leased the building from the Wirral Council fourteen years ago. It shut down in February 2009 due to a lack of grants, despite massive popularity and the local community helping with repair.

Alan Gibbons, a Liverpool writer who got involved in the campaign to save libraries, is not in favour of Community Asset Transfer either. “The position of our ‘Campaign for the Book’ is: taxpayers pay for these services. The services should be administered by local councils. That way you will get the statutory protection of the law for these services to exist. Once they are contracted out to some semi-official community base, which is something the Conservatives are very loosely talking about now, then I think you lose that protection. It is very easy then to make people make their own cuts. What you do is you make people in charge of an ever diminishing budget and ask them to choose what not to have. I don’t think that’s how you administer public services. I think you set up statutory minimum levels, that’s what we are fighting for. That’s why the act is so important. What I hate is all these reports that come out with titles such as empowerment and enhancement, they mean nothing. Unless there is a rigorous plan that sets out the minimum standards, they are a fraud.”

Victory for libraries… the game is not over

In April 2009, the former Culture Secretary Andy Burnham ordered an inquiry into Wirral library closures. The ‘Campaign for the Book’, alongside thousands of others, targeted Burnham. Alan Gibbons recalls: “We were sending protest letters. The Culture Secretary responded that he “was not minded” to overturn the council decision. But we went on and the campaign against cuts kept going. A few months later, in April, he called the inquiry and he did it only because of the public and popular pressure.”

The central government inquiry closed in October last year, concluding that Wirral Council’s plan would have broken the law, specifically the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act. The document said the council “displayed a lack of logic” and “failed to make an assessment of local needs”. People on Wirral burst out in celebration.

How do some of the participants see this victory? Jo: “It’s all down to our individual decision to say NO and do something, at least a little bit. This may be a lesson for the period after the elections when the government will come with yet more cuts. People should never underestimate how much you can do as an individual”. Elaine Jones summarised the victory: “We co-ordinated and organised the anger that existed and as such were able to stop all closures.” On the other hand, in Jo’s opinion “there was no overall coordination, apart from Facebook and Alan Gibbons’ blog where people could get information and download the letter to councillors”. Fred MacCormack, who highly credits Elaine Jones’ coordinating role, remains cautious: “Yes, we proved that community power still works. The problem is that all is quiet again.” He hints to the fact that most community facilities to be axed were not libraries and thus remain without any legal protection.

So what’s going to happen to the community and leisure centres, cultural facilities, swimming pool? I asked Wirral Council. The information manager Jane Corrin replied in a very brief email, confirming the concerns that Community Asset Transfers are going ahead, advertised in the local press, one by one, each separate. “The timetable for the closure of buildings remains.”

Last but not least, Wirral Council questions the ‘truth’ that the cuts in services have been brought about mainly by the credit crunch. In fact, already in 2006 Wirral councillors were discussing the closures of services to save some money. It’s no surprise. For many years public sector workers in the UK observed how businesses had tended to suck public services dry, and introduced the profit motive into them. The latest recession is just the peaking of this viral self-expansion of profit, with its ‘managers’ having lost any control over it. And as with any other virus, simply taking a pill does not help us in the long run. We need more radical changes in the economy than simply fixing the recession.

If your community facilities are under threat, you may find the following sites useful:

Statutory Guidance for Closing a School
Parents Against School Closure
Save Our Schools Glasgow
Defend Education in Lewisham
Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts
London Coalition Against Poverty