Councilors warn of ‘threat to local democracy’ in England after Nottingham budget cuts | Local government

Councilors elected to run a financially struggling city have warned that local democracy is “under threat” as they no longer have full control of budget decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

David Mellen, the Labor leader of Nottingham City Council, said councilors did not have the final say on the “devastating” funding gap which has led them to approve more than 500 redundancies, council tax rises and million pounds in reductions last week.

Leveling Secretary Michael Gove last month sent commissioners in the troubled East Midlands Authority, which declared bankruptcy in November.

“(Last year) we banned the Conservative Party because no Conservative councilors were elected and yet somehow, through the back door, Conservative government appointees have tremendous levels of power in our city,” Mellen said. “Our mandate has been encroached upon. These commissioners, and by extension our officers, currently have more power.

The commissioners arrived after a government-appointed improvement committee spent seven months overseeing the council’s efforts to balance its books. The board’s final act was to give the authority’s unelected top officials the power to effectively write the budget.

“We tried to change the budget but we didn’t get permission,” Mellen said. “Usually, leaders and board members work together. We develop an agreed set of (budget) proposals to submit for consultation. This year that didn’t happen. (The budget) included things we could live with and things we were absolutely opposed to.

The budget included defunding all voluntary organizations and community centers in the city, scrapping senior citizens’ dining clubs, closing the last two remaining youth centers, potentially closing libraries and charging for toilets used by homeless people in the city center.

Mellen, a former headteacher, added: “We have balanced our budget, but this has had some pretty dire consequences for Nottingham’s communities. »

The city’s problems stem partly from the collapse of the council’s not-for-profit energy supplier in 2020. But councilors point to deep austerity-era budget cuts and growing demands on their statutory services, such as social assistance and help for the homeless. Core public funding has increased from £127 million in 2013 to £32 million in 2024.

One in five councils in England say they are most likely to follow Nottingham and issue a section 114 notice, meaning they cannot balance their budget, this year or next.

Birmingham, which has also seen some functions taken over by government commissioners, last week passed what were described as the deepest budget cuts ever in local government history.

All but one of Nottingham’s Labor councilors voted in favor of the cuts last week. Mellen said the alternative would have been even worse: “We were strongly advised that the requirement to establish a legal budget was paramount – that if we didn’t do it, staff would not be paid, services would not be not provided. »

Labor Party officials also appear to have had influence over councilors behind the scenes. Mellen said the party’s regional office and Keir Starmer’s office had indicated that councilors would be kicked out of the party if they opposed the budget, as Labor tries to project an image of economic responsibility.

“We were told that (voting against the budget) would not be beneficial for maintaining membership in the Labor Party,” Mellen said.

Councilor Shuguftah Quddoos, who is the sheriff of Nottingham, was suspended by Labor after refusing to vote in favor of the city’s budget cuts. Photograph: Tracey Whitefoot/Nottingham City Council

The only Labor councilor to rebel, Shuguftah Quddoos, was suspended by the party. Quddoos, who holds the ceremonial position of Sheriff of Nottingham, said any measures to minimize cuts to services proposed by the city’s elected councilors were not included in the budget.

“Local democracy has been completely undermined. I don’t want to be a cog in the wheel,” Quddoos said. “It felt like a complete and utter sham.”

Quddoos said she had urged her Labor colleagues to follow the example of the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921, when councilors in London’s East End were jailed for defying what they saw as a system unfair funding. Their actions have led to more equitable funding for poorer areas.

“I will go to prison for six weeks. I love my city so much,” she said. “At the end of the day, I have to look my residents in the eye. »

Ministers last month said to 19 tips, including six of the eight English city councils that have actually declared bankruptcy, that they could sell assets, such as land and buildings, to pay for services.

But Mellen said cities like Nottingham, which was cleared to use £41m from asset sale to fund services this financial year required real financial assistance from the government.

“We need real money,” he said. “It’s certainly not a bailout and it doesn’t make economic sense.” I only have a bachelor’s degree in economics, but we cannot support this way of financing public services. It’s like financing the country’s defense by selling off Whitehall. That does not make sense. »

The Department for Upgrading, Housing and Communities said it had “appointed independent commissioners to guide members and officers to achieve the best possible outcome for Nottingham residents”.

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