West Midland campaigns against cuts - local successes, regional challengesBy Ben Ballin
24th Jan 2012
The West Midlands spans rural shires and major cities, including huge disparities in wealth. Ten years ago, West Midlands parliamentary constituencies were among the richest and the poorest in the UK (Poverty in Plenty – A human development report for the UK’, 2000). A decade later, Nechells in Birmingham still has one of the highest national incidences of child poverty. Traditionally a manufacturing heartland, the urban West Midlands has been hit hard by the long decline of this sector. It now looks like the public sector is following suit.
According to the Regional Observatory, “The West Midlands economy is particularly vulnerable to the impact of [public sector] cuts. Between 1998 and 2008 ... [it] saw the most significant increase in dependence on public sector employment in the country”. Such cuts are beginning to have a profound impact on the wider regional community and economy: on services, jobs, partners and suppliers; above all, on the lives of the region’s most vulnerable people.
This is not without considerable opposition. There are at least 26 anti cuts groups in the region, with 14 in Birmingham alone. There are further groups resisting cuts in the NHS, youth service provision etc – and active campaigns focused on specific local services. To date, initial campaign successes have mostly been around this specifically local element.
A local success – Charles House, King’s Norton
On 12th January 2012, the B31 Voices community blog announced that “Charles House, the respite home for disabled children in West Heath [Birmingham] faced with possible closure as part of Birmingham City Council’s spending review, has today been offered a reprieve. The home is a lifeline for families of children with problems such as severe learning disabilities and autism.”
This followed a well-orchestrated local campaign, including questions by councillors, lobbying, and co-ordinated messages of support. In December 2011, to applause from the public gallery, a supportive councillor submitted a petition of 2,684 signatures to a full council meeting. A month later, Councillor Les Lawrence, the city’s Cabinet member for Children, Young People and Families, announced that “Charles House … will continue to provide high quality respite care for young people together with supporting their families underpinned by staff who are highly respected.”
What made this campaign succeed where others fail? In the same announcement, Les Lawrence says that “The commitment shown by parents, staff and young people … was an important factor in the consideration of the future for Charles House.”
Bob Whitehead, from Stirchley and Cotteridge Against the Cuts, endorses this view: “The main thing has been the self-organisation of the service users themselves – the parents. It was them that contacted the press and councillors, and they all met regularly and knew what they were doing.”
Parents were able to speak with great power and clarity about what the service meant to them. As Karl Phillips, whose 12 year old son has a range of learning disabilities and behavioural problems, says on the B31 blog: “Parents have campaigned hard to get this decision, but at the end of the day we were just raising awareness of the highly skilled, committed and caring staff at Charles House, we trust implicitly with our children, and their dedication won our argument.”
Bob Whitehead also offers the following further insights into the success of the campaign:
o The supporting role of Stirchley and Cotteridge against the Cuts [SACAC] in “giving parents advice, linking to the community, helping make a bridge to councillors, organising street work, stalls and the B31 blog.”
o Political engagement: some councillors supported the campaign, and this put pressure on the city’s ruling Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition to review its decision. This was helped by good timing, since “a key local councillor, who had praised Charles House in the past, was due up for re-election.”
o The non partisan nature of the campaign. Despite their high profile in general anti-cuts activity, trades union support was not particularly strong at Charles House [even though public sector jobs were at risk]. Meanwhile, the wider local campaign is unwilling to be drawn into conventional party politics: “We will be just as hard on any other parties which support cuts as we have been on the Tories and the Lib Dems.” Indeed, the group is looking at running independent anti-cuts candidates in the next council elections.
o Solidarity with others. SACAC make it clear that they “hope that the survival of Charles House is not at the expense of any other such house or Council services. But if anywhere else does feel threatened, the service users concerned can take a leaf out of the Charles House parents’ campaign to see how to defend themselves.”
It is tempting to think that local campaigns, well-co-ordinated and learning from each other, might yet prove such successes to be contagious.
With that in mind, I talked with Bob Whitehead, Tom Holness [Birmingham Against the Cuts] and others, and suggest the following as key challenges for effective anti-cuts campaigning in the region:
Co-ordination - crucial, if the multiplicity of often-autonomous local and sectoral groups are to learn from each other and have a collective impact. One challenge is finding a unified voice, without in any way stifling the sort of local initiative which make for a success like that at Charles House. A regional anti-cuts group meets monthly, to help co-ordinate and network local activity. The Birmingham group has a good website where local groups can share information and co-ordinate activity.
Offering alternatives - While “people are generally p****d off about what is going on” [as Dave Rogers from Banner Theatre puts it], anti-cuts campaigners will often need to propose alternatives, and not just offer criticism. Banner Theatre, for example, makes a point of making sure that an “alternative agenda gets heard”, while Tom Holness, from Birmingham Against The Cuts, says that “Everything we do, all the leaflets we produce, our website, speakers at meetings etc, push the alternatives to cuts, so that we are not just saying ‘don't cut’ but also offering alternative policies.” As time moves on, and communities move beyond the current phase of nationally-enforced austerity measures, such solutions are likely to move beyond macro-economic policy proposals about “closing the tax gap” and “Keynesian stimulus,” to finding local solutions for securing and managing community services. There is a long Midlands tradition of practical community action for constructive change, with or without government support: indeed, while governments and policies change, communities and their institutions often prove to be more enduring.
Creativity and Imagination - Some groups have used media and the arts to enliven their campaign activities. Banner Theatre, for example, play to Trade Unions and community groups, with a mixture of live performance, music, video and documentary footage. Some of the songs are also on You Tube (For details and links, see www.bannertheatre.co.uk).The group systematically collects feedback, which -according to Dave Rogers - shows that “people have moved on as a result of the performances, for example by supporting strike action when they did not before,”
Acting and thinking strategically - While there are “far more people against cuts than for them, when we talk to people,” says Tom Holness, it is not always easy to convert this to active campaigning support. Tom points to a sense of disconnect with the political process: “I suspect that people either think that the cuts have to happen, or do not think that any political action will change what the government are going to do.” Add to this, the limited scope for movement that many in local authorities feel, when faced with reduced budgets, and there is a huge attitudinal and practical mountain to climb … and certainly one beyond the scope of any local or regional campaign to resolve on its own.
In a sense, this makes local successes like Charles House all the more important: in terms of inspiration, building morale, learning what works, and gaining a sense that things are possible and achievable – whatever the politicians decide. Communities really can make a change, and many small changes, well co-ordinated, and coupled to ongoing pressure at a national level, could make a very big change indeed.
West Midland campaigns against cuts - local successes, regional challenges