TESTING TIMES – My New Year’s article for the Tameside Reporter

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Happy new year.

It’s customary to be optimistic about the future at the start of a new calendar year, and I certainly hope 2013 will be a happier and more prosperous one for the people of Tameside than 2012 was for many.  But I fear it will be another tight and difficult time for a large number of my constituents across Audenshaw, Denton and Dukinfield, and for the rest of the borough.  And one of the real challenges for Tameside this coming year will be how we deal with the latest round of severe spending cuts to the local council’s budget.

Local government finance has already been heavily cut by this Tory-led Government, resulting in some very difficult decisions for our councillors, who have the unenviable job of trying to make those shrinking budgets fit growing public demands for decent public services.  And I hate to sound so pessimistic, but it looks set to get even worse for local government, because just before Christmas, Eric Pickles announced another two years’ worth of cuts, totaling 6.4% of the budget, which equates to a multi-million pounds shortfall on top of the £70million cuts already made.

2438372_29758de2In fact, when you look at the scale of the reductions, it is councils in northern, urban areas and in inner London – those with high levels of deprivation (and predominantly run by Labour) who have seen their budgets cut by almost 10 times the amount lost by mostly Tory-administered authorities in mainly rural England.   In particular, Tameside has already lost a massive amount of spending power: before taking into consideration the latest announcement, the borough had lost £110.39 for every man, woman and child. In comparison, David Cameron’s local authority of West Oxfordshire has lost only £34.33 per head; and indeed the latest settlement actually gives them a grant increase! This is massively unfair.

Added to this we have the spectre of  “Pickles’ Poll Tax” – bluntly, this means council tax rises for the poorest – which will come in on the same day next April as a tax cut for millionaires. Many will be unaware, but these changes to the system of council tax relief, will mean many low paid people currently exempt from the charge will now be hit with a bill for the first time. Tameside will be unfairly hit by this and will have quite a shortfall because the money the council can expect to receive from the government means the scheme will be underfunded by a massive £3 ½  million.

It’s easy for Ministers in the government to forget, but council tax relief isn’t just an ‘out of work’ benefit paid to those claiming unemployment benefits or to pensioners, it is also an ‘in work’ benefit, paid to those in low paid employment – and it is this extra help that often makes that low-paid employment worthwhile. What is more galling is that the people affected by these changes are likely to be the same people who are also caught up with changes to housing benefit, and potentially with under-occupancy rules, and who have also seen their tax credits reduced. This is the real unfairness of the government’s cuts, and it is hitting the same people in placed like Tameside time and again.

 This article was written for the Tameside Reporter

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