Northamptonshire County Council hit the headlines last year after it was announced that the local authority was facing bankruptcy. We spoke to a council worker, who revealed the harsh reality of this crisis.
As deep cuts continue to be made to local councils, the most vulnerable people are suffering.
The case of Northamptonshire County Council is a particularly chilling one. As a result of austerity and rising costs, the Tory-led council faces bankruptcy. Central government stepped in last year to oversee a massive cuts budget, involving the slashing over £40 million. Most recently, it was decided that the council would be scrapped, with local authorities in the area merged and reorganised.
The effects of these cuts are not only recent. Rather, there has been a noticeable long-term impact involving mistreatment of staff and neglect of the community.
Socialist Appeal spoke to a council worker in Northamptonshire to hear a first-hand account of how the cuts have affected this crisis-ridden council and its local residents.
Socialist Appeal: what do you do in the council?
I work in the Adult Social Services Department of Northampton Borough Council. I am responsible for selecting private agencies to provide care for patients who have been discharged from hospital or are vulnerable members of the community with deteriorating health. I try to ensure these people are safe and properly cared for by agencies whose main goal is profit over proper, humane care.
What impact have the cuts had in Northamptonshire?
The continuous cuts and projected further shrinking of the budget have had a massive impact on the most vulnerable and needy people in the community, who rely upon council services.
Northamptonshire has suffered cuts to public transport, education, social services and libraries. The care that I source helps reach people who are less mobile and cannot get out into the local community. Making cuts to the services provided to these people is taking lifelines away and isolating them.
Furthermore, vulnerable people are now expected to shoulder the cost of their own care. Social care used to be free and available to all who needed it as a basic human right. Now recipients of the care are expected to pay. They are assessed on how much they can feasibly afford to contribute towards the cost of care that should be provided freely.
Why are the cuts to the libraries so damaging?
The cuts to the libraries may not seem as impactful at first glance. However, they are useful as community hubs to connect with isolated individuals or those who need help and support. At the libraries members of the community can apply for benefits and disabled parking permits, as well as attend group sessions in arts and crafts and toddler and baby groups. The sessions provide essential support for parents and are a much needed opportunity for social interaction.
The people of Northamptonshire were up in arms – rightly so – over library closures. So as a result of this, only the smallest libraries in more rural communities were closed and the main town libraries saved. This is still a great loss to those areas as it further isolates their inhabitants and represents a failure to fulfill their needs.
How have the cuts affected your working conditions?
The cuts have massively affected me and my colleagues. The work we do is incredibly stressful trying to provide the best quality service with the financial crumbs handed to me by the Tory councillors. Add to that the stress of intense media attention since the declaration of bankruptcy last year and scrutiny from the Executive.
I am coming under mounting pressure to deliver. I have worked in Northamptonshire local government for over five years. Yet despite my loyalty, I feel uneasy about my job security. Me and my colleagues are constantly being kept in the dark about what personnel are being severed in the cuts.
How have the cuts affected your pay?
Pay has been frozen for two years. Before that pay rises were based on performance appraisals only.
Contrast the pay freeze of the council workers with the pay-off to the last CEO, Paul Blantern. Blantern was asked to step down for mismanagement of council funds. He overspent £21 million in 2017-18, which led to a £60-70 million shortfall last year. Ironically, he received £95,000 on his departure for the financial pain and misery he had caused the county.
I was furious! Especially as all of us council employees were forced to take a day’s unpaid leave in order to pay for this generous redundancy package. Furthermore, Blantern was warned many times by opposition MPs of the financial crisis that he was leading Northamptonshire towards, but he took no heed.
What has been the impact on your mental health?
We are not just being attacked on pay. We are also feeling the effects of the work on our mental health. When I worked in frontline services I answered multiple calls a day from angered residents, crying out against the agonising cuts to local services, which heavily impact on children at risk, the elderly, and the disabled.
I felt a heavy-weight during my time in that department. Many of my colleagues signed off with long-term sickness due to stress. In turn, this piled up the workload for those of us remaining. In addition, morning and afternoon breaks of 15 minutes have been cut. This is a pattern I hear is reflected in most workplaces up and down the country.
What is the future for Northamptonshire council?
I see it as very bleak. If the Tories stay in power in the council then the cuts will not cease. This will result in more vulnerable people being at risk of having vital services that they depend on being taken away from them. Council employees like myself will be expected to do yet more with less.
Northamptonshire County Council is one of the worst cases, and has received a lot of media attention. But we are not the only ones. Along with 168 other local councils, they “will no longer receive any core central government funding in the 2019-20 financial year” (according to the Financial Times, 4th July 17).
Councils up and down the country are ruthlessly slashing public services and will have to source funding from somewhere else this year. Many communities across the country have experienced decades of cuts to local services and now the bone is showing. There is little flesh left to cut. The patient is unlikely to survive much longer unless drastic solutions are implemented.
What is the solution?
Labour has to fight Tory cuts and defend public services in Northamptonshire. Labour councils need to refuse to implement government mandated cuts and launch a militant anti-cuts movement in conjunction with strikes by council workers.
With a force of that size the Tories could be toppled. We need to call for a general election now to oust them and their horrendous cuts. Austerity must end, and the bankers made to pay for putting vulnerable people in counties like Northamptonshire at risk, straining our already stretched council resources. More than this though, it is essential to understand that government cuts are a symptom of the decay of capitalism. The ruling class only care about protecting their interests and defending their profits, at the expense of the masses.
Labour must reverse all cuts and carry out a socialist programme to provide high quality care as a basic human right and necessity, instead of as a source of profits for the bosses.