If you want to get a picture of the state of London in 2014 – the lines of power, the triumph of the rich, the sufferings of the poor – you would do well to read Lambeth Council’s draft budget for 2014/15.
Payday loans, deep debt, children with no primary school places, a chronic shortage of social housing, high rents, and many more people in temporary accommodation than ever before – all these and more appear on the pages of the proposed budget. A tone of despair, almost a loss for words, seeps its way into the proposals, because the coalition government is cutting such an extraordinary amount from the funding it gives the council – fifty percent – that it is almost impossible to see how to make a dent on any of these growing problems with a disappearing pot of gold.
“Given the anticipated reduction of up to 50% of our core Government funding”, goes the report, “it is clear that the traditional approach to deciding which services to provide and how to deliver those services cannot be sustained… The Council is trying to ensure that those things that are most important and valued by the people of the borough continue to happen. However it is important to acknowledge that with £96m less money to spend it is inevitable that the way in which services are delivered in the future will change.”
Yes, that was £96 million in the last sentence. It’s not news that the council has to make such massive savings, but it comes as a shock every time. That £96 million is not the total of cuts made – £79.5m has already been chopped from the budget – but is what needs to be cut in the next three financial years. “The remaining challenge takes us into unchartered territory”, says the draft budget. For the financial year 2014/15, the council has identified £25.4 million of cuts. It has found further possible savings of £32.4m for the years after that. But that still leaves £37.8m left to go…from where? No-one seems to know.
Presented at the financial scrutiny committee on January 21, the draft budget will go to vote in front of the council on February 26.
Most people in Lambeth will suffer in some way from these cuts and savings – waste disposal, roads, healthcare, education will all have to change – but reading the report, it is painfully clear that it is the poor and vulnerable who will really hurt, because they will have nowhere else to turn (private renting, private healthcare, private advice services). In the breakdown of savings to be made, we learn that one in six Lambeth residents have been affected by benefits cuts and that “arrears and debts are increasing with Lambeth being one of the top three boroughs in London where payday loan usage is problematic”. But in the next breath, the draft proposes that “it will be very difficult to maintain current levels of service provision in the areas of advice, debt support and advocacy.” So there will be cuts of £160,000 to debt support services. There will, says the draft, “be a greater focus on preventing problems and intervening early before debt and arrears become unmanageable.” But with so many sinking into debt because of all the problems outlined everywhere else, it is unclear quite how the council with no money can really intervene early to help people broken by benefits cuts.
Perhaps the most crushing part of the draft budget is its section on housing. There is no pretence that the council will be able to provide enough social housing, or even close to it. London’s future is dominated by private rents, it seems. “There is very high demand for housing in Lambeth”, goes the proposal. “For most people, applying for social rented housing is not a realistic option…all those who need housing have to consider housing options, including private rented accommodation…there will be fewer services available and residents will need to be increasingly self-reliant in arranging their own housing.”
Working on the Blog for the past four years, it has become clear that one of the only ways to make sure gentrification doesn’t displace people is social housing. It’s something we have campaigned for time and time again. There will be some built when Somerleyton Road is developed. But that’s not enough – will we ever have the bravery to come up with true solutions to the housing crisis in London?
All this shows a silent group lurking in the draft budget – those who might actually profit from the cuts, those the council says it wants to attract to the area so that they can invest money in it. These are the private companies and individuals who have the capital to stump up where the council can’t. One common example of this is a developer who can afford to build a new mixed-use area consisting of retail and flats (some social or affordable, some private) and who then reaps the profit from the private rents.
So a London of debt and a London of profit, all held together uncomfortably in the Lambeth draft budget proposal for 2014/15.