Woking, a borough council in Surrey, has a £1.9billion debt, with an annual net budget of £24million. On the face of it (and according to press reports) the council is effectively bankrupt. The debts levels are equivalent to £19,000 per resident in Woking. The debts are a result of both government austerity – taking more than £10billion out of local authority budgets over the last 10 years – and previous Tory council leaders gambling billions on real estate ventures. These loans were all approved by the Tory government through the Public Works Loans Board.
The government has stepped in and is demanding the current Lib Dem council make the people of Woking and council employees pay for the crisis. They have imposed commissioners on the town – each of which is being paid out of council funds over £1,000 per day (out of Woking’s resources) to oversee the effective destruction of local public services. The government’s own report states that the commissioners will be in place for at least 5 years and will need to work at least 150 days per year. There are 4 commissioners – so that’s at least £3million. The proposed 10% rise in council tax will just about cover the cost of these unelected butchers.
So far, alongside meaningless public ‘consultations’ over which services to axe, the council has been told to make £11m of cuts this year (that’s nearly half of the council’s annual budget) - it’s eye-watering stuff. Then a 25% cut in budget year-on-year for at least the next 5 years.
In practice, this means hundreds of jobs will go from the council – along with the knock-on impact on local shops and businesses, many of whom may go under. Parts of Woking could become wastelands – bereft of any ‘discretionary’ council services.
What are the services that are threatened with the axe? Primarily those most needed by the most vulnerable in our community.
All ‘discretionary’ services will need to be provided by someone else (the private or voluntary sector) or be cut. The so-called discretionary services include
Parks and green spaces
Options such as closing play areas that are not used frequently, exploring lower levels of maintenance, making play areas potentially unsafe for our children.
Arts, Cultural & Sports Development
The Council currently subsidises the local arts centre, the Lightbox, and provides support for arts and cultural development. Community groups such as Woking Community Choir and Dance for Parkinson’s classes, and support for arts organisations across the borough. ‘Cultural development’ includes enabling and supporting community cultural initiatives such as annual celebrations for Diwali and Chinese New Year as well as other one-off events. The Council also provides funding for Dance Woking. ‘Sports Development’ includes the provision of Woking’s inclusion in the Surrey Youth Games and the support and development of a range of sports clubs and health and wellbeing activities.
Pool in the Park
The proposal is the phased closure of this building over the next 3 years, with initial focus on the closure of the Leisure Pool.
WBC currently funds 13 sports pitches and pavilions. The proposal is to remove funding for these.
WBC currently provides public conveniences at 12 locations across the borough. The proposal is to remove all public toilets.
A community grants scheme is currently in place. Previous beneficiaries of the grants scheme have included Citizens Advice Woking, Woking Community Transport, Your Sanctuary, and Maybury and Sheerwater Community Trust. These grants will end.
Woking Translation Service and Voluntary Sector Support
Community Centres – day care and hot meals services
Currently, day care facilities are offered at St Mary’s, The Vyne, Hale End Court and Brockhill for frail or vulnerable residents. The service includes care and assistance from support staff, hot drinks and a hot midday meal, social and gentle exercise activities, and a return journey on the accessible Bustler bus. The proposal is to relocate the current day care offer from The Vyne and St Mary's to Hale End and Brockhill Extra Care Schemes. To remove council subsidy entirely.
So what can we do? How can we protect the most vulnerable in our community?
The current councilors have been told to ‘work at pace’ to make these cuts – sadly the government’s own report states that ‘members and officers have been very cooperative’. The vast majority of councillors, including all the main political parties, say that they cannot act without first getting funding from the government. But we say that's the wrong way round.
We are arguing that councillors should continue to provide these desperately needed services – whilst at the same time, demanding the shortfall is covered by central government and that they write off the vast debts run up by previous Tory councillors.
At the very least – real peoples’ budget councilors would refuse to axe already existing and much needed services – draw a line and say no more! Galvanise the local population, bring the unions on board and demand the government puts its hand down the back of the sofa.
Save Our Services in Surrey will be lobbying the council on 8th February at 6pm outside the council offices when they finalise their cuts budget. We are calling on all local people to come along and join us – also to consider standing for election as a caouncillor in May’s local elections. If we had even a dozen fighting, socialist councillors prepared to make a stand we could offer a real campaigning leadership to residents, service users and council workers and push back the cuts agenda.
If we do nothing, they will literally get away with murder – our slogan on the mass demonstration we held here in Woking a few years ago was ‘austerity kills’. It is now sadly apt as the council, under government supervision, prepares to lay waste to local services. We can fight back. We must fight back. We have no choice.