Tim Holmes explains why he set off an alarm at the Powys County Council budget meeting
Setting off a personal alarm during Powys County Council's budget meeting proved far easier than I would ever have thought possible. On February 25, as the council prepared to cut £20 million from its budget – part of a total £40million cut over the next three years – more than a hundred demonstrators gathered outside its building. Many were there to protest cuts to schools and Citizens' Advice Bureau, or the closure of special educational needs units. These cuts, though, are only the tip of the iceberg. The council is planning to close libraries, leisure centres, day centres for the elderly, pest control; to axe rural bus services, social care, support funds for students' travel, social care transport, meals on wheels; and to slash funding for bilingual services, education and school meals. Since spending on home care will be capped, it is likely that many will stop using it. At the same time, the county will impose huge hikes in council tax at a time when council tax benefit has been scrapped, tightening the screws on the poorest people even further. Faced with this concerted attack, the idea that vulnerable lives will not be destroyed or irreparably damaged is simply not plausible.
Having slipped into the Council chamber a few minutes into the meeting, fumbling with the unfamiliar contraption in my hands (£4.49 on Amazon if you're interested), I wandered to the front, set off the – startlingly loud – alarm, and hunkered down for ten minutes. Several friends unleashed a torrent of chants at the chamber's windows. Hurriedly returning from a premature coffee break, the police threatened us with arrest, before escorting us – still chanting – out of the building.
Not exactly an anthrax attack, then – though the council evidently had difficulty distinguishing the two. The following Wednesday, having deferred its vote by a week after a 'shambolic' first meeting, it placed security guards at the entrance to the building. This was on the day that it would sack 400 of its staff, and in spite of the continuing police presence. The council had acted, it told the press, to ensure 'the safety of the public' after the previous week's protest – which harmed no one, and disrupted the meeting for around 10 minutes (considerably less than did the councillors' own incompetence). The guards' principal accomplishment was to prevent protestors from using the building's public toilets.
After direct action, journalists invariably ask 'what did you hope to achieve?' The obvious – if often unstated – answer is 'this interview, for a start'. Our action soon led the news on S4C, BBC Wales, and in an array of local and regional papers; was the second story on BBC Wales online; and for a while even appeared on the front of the entire BBC News website. For those who wonder whether disruptive protest is worth the trouble, there is your answer.
It was the only reasonable response to a catastrophic failure of local democracy. The Council's public 'consultation' was a joke – rushed through, inadequately publicised and profoundly disingenuous. Its consultation document, far from promoting open discussion, simply listed a range of areas where cuts might be made. Would you rather lose an arm, sir, or a leg? Or perhaps both eyes?
Even then, as blogger Mike Sivier points out, the 'total amount to be saved if constituents agreed to'all the cuts' in the document 'was £16 million, with the rest to be taken from reserves – so there was no way to balance the books without making all the cuts listed’. Accordingly, the council soon agreed to push through cuts to which only a tiny minority of respondents had consented.
Legally, the coalition's vicious attack on local government is in flagrant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines a person's 'right of equal access to public service in his [sic] country'; to education and social security and to the
realisation ... in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State ... of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality
a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services
A recent report from the Council of Europe, which examined various local budgets – including in Cardiff – found that these cuts also violate Britain’s obligations under the European Charter of Local Self-Government. This echoes the warning of Welsh Local Government Association head Steve Thomas that some Welsh councils may go to the wall, unable to fund services they are legally required to provide.
Predictably, the Tories threw a mud-slinging hissy-fit at the Council, complaining that one of its rapporteurs was a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party – as though, not content with invading Ukraine, the devious Asiatics are now conspiring to save our day centres and rural bus services.
If anyone was upholding the law over the last fortnight, it was not the council preparing to obliterate local services, nor the police threatening us with arrest. It was the protesters taking whatever action they could to resist the cuts. Over the next few years, whether in Powys, Cardiff, London or elsewhere, these kinds of actions will be essential. Because the alternative – a return to Victorian conditions in the twenty-first century – does not bear thinking about.