Tension as Lewisham's 'difficult' cuts get under way

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As English councils digest the details of tough budget cuts one London authority is already ahead of the game. BBC News takes a look at Lewisham, where cuts proposals are in full swing amid rising local anger, and will return next year to see how the plans are affecting lives.

At the Labour-controlled council in south-east London decisions are already being made about which services to cut or reduce, and which to leave alone. Children or elderly services? Libraries or recycling?

Elected Mayor Sir Steve Bullock has said he will try to protect those most in need and not simply "those who shout the loudest".

The council has been saying publicly since June that it would need to save about £60m - but perhaps as much as £78m - over three years, based on an estimation that they would have to cut about 25% of their budget over four years.

As the reality of what that means for services filters through, many in the borough's communities - a mix of inner-city and leafy suburban areas - have been shouting loudly.

Protests, campaigns and petitions have been springing up to voice objections to the plans, such as proposals to close five of the borough's libraries, and "delete" hundreds of council jobs.

Last month riot police were called to a council meeting that was discussing part of the three-year cuts programme. Protesters were furious they were not allowed inside and stormed the building.

It was not a typical Monday evening in Catford, where the council's offices are based.

But in what could be seen as a sign of things to come for other areas, different groups - community campaigners, trade union activists, students and interested individuals - had come together to show how unhappy they were with the proposals, and the process by which they were being decided. And they say they will not give up that fight.

Plans 'alarming'

That night a full meeting of the council went on to agree the first phase of the cuts plans, totalling more than £16m, but deferred final decisions on some of the more controversial elements - such as library closures - until early next year.

"A lot of it was deferred to put off the campaigners," said Eleanor Davies, 42, of the Lewisham Anti Cuts Alliance - a collection of activists which is mirrored in other parts of the country.

"So many people went to demonstrations and council focus groups on the library closures, they couldn't just push it through.

"There is such a strong feeling about keeping these services open," added Ms Davies, a teacher and NUT representative.

While library closures are among the most tangible proposals currently on the table, they are by no means the only ones. Plans to cut a centre that helps unemployed people back into work or training has been controversial, as has a proposal to shut down a children's centre - now being consulted on.

However most campaigners - which also include Lewisham People Before Profit and the Right to Work campaign - are objecting to the entire rationale for making the cuts as a way of making the "poor... pay for a financial crisis".

"People have found it alarming that these plans were already being made before the elections in May," says campaigner James Holland, who first got involved via a community action group over the proposed closure of his local library at New Cross.

"And they have found it alarming that this is being done by a Labour council. They got such an increased vote in the election [in Lewisham] because people were scared of Tory cuts."

But Sir Steve - elected mayor in 2002 and a councillor since 1982 - told BBC News that while he was "angry" with some of the coalition governments cuts measures he was not going to respond by "burying my head in the sand".

Image caption,
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said there was "fairness" in the settlement

"Are [the protesters] saying that because we are a Labour council we should behave irresponsibly? I am not prepared to do that to score political points," he says.

Nevertheless, making decisions about this round of cuts - which he says they have initially tried to weight towards "efficiency" measures and "back office" roles - has been "immensely difficult".

"I have been doing this job for a long time and I'm not squeamish about making hard decisions. But what I'm struggling with now is that things which people in my community will have been regarding as essential, we are likely to find we can no longer go on supporting."

And this is only the beginning, he reiterates. What he says is really concerning is: "How I am going to find another £13m next year and then what will happen after that?"

It "troubles" him that provisions such as early years services, or those for young "Neets" [teenagers not in employment, education, or training], which he believes the council has worked hard to develop, could be undermined by the austerity measures they take.

"We did not create these services without spending money. I'll be saying to myself 'I don't want to stop that, but what will I stop instead?'."

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