‘The end of local government as we know it’ says Mayor, as Lewisham cuts package approved

Scene outside Lewisham Town Hall. Photo: sueluxton @ Twitter

As riot police held back a crowd of over 100 protesters outside Lewisham Town Hall last night, the Council pushed through the cuts package of £16m agreed at the Mayor and Cabinet meeting on 17 November.

Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham, urged the Coalition government to ‘stop the onslaught on local services before it is too late’, warning that ‘jobs will be lost’.

Before the meeting had even begun, security began to evacuate the building when a small group of protesters released smoke bombs in the lobby, setting off the fire alarm. But as the situation escalated into violence, people were instead contained inside the council chamber and stairwell, while police forcibly removed the protesters from the lobby. Some peaceful protesters, who were already inside for the meeting, accepted the police’s offer to be escorted out safely if they no longer wanted to attend.

As the meeting reconvened, police outside donned riot shields as some members of the majority peaceful protest surged at the town hall, smashing the glass doors. As the situation escalated, police vans and officers on horseback arrived on the scene, with several arrests being made.

Inside, a protester swinging from the balcony of the council chamber was removed, and the meeting then opened with a minute’s silence for Sapper William Blanchard, from the City of London 101 Regiment based in Catford, who was killed on active duty in Afghanistan on 30 October.

Lewisham Council operates its budget in two parts each year, with a savings package announced in November and the rest of the budget defined in February. The decision last night related to the current November savings package, reflecting the government’s 28 percent cuts to local services.

Several councillors stated that while they “deplore the cuts”, it was better that Lewisham Council wield the axe themselves, rather than set an illegal budget and have the central government take over.

Cllr Davis, Labour for Ladywell, said: “This is to be regretted, but we can’t spend what we don’t have.”

The meeting was not without a brief foray into party politics. In what appeared to be the reverse of scenes currently playing out in Westminster, the cuts were passed by 36 Labour councillors voting in favour, with opposition from three Conservative and Green votes, and 11 Liberal Democrats abstaining entirely.

While Labour councillors blamed the Coalition government for the cuts package, Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors drew attention to the Mayor’s plans for £60m cuts made in March, when the Labour government was still in power.

The Mayor said he only made this estimate on the basis that Labour might not win the election, something he ‘foolishly hoped would be the worst case scenario’.

He said: “Don’t give people the impression that with the stroke of a pen we can solve the problem. This is the end of local government as we know it.”

During the peaceful protest much earlier in the evening, some people made themselves heard outside the town hall.

“All these cuts affect people at the bottom the most, and they’re suffering for a crisis that wasn’t theirs,” said Soren Goard, 20, of Goldsmiths Anti-Cuts and Lewisham Right to Work.

In reference to the financial crisis, George Hallam of People Before Profit, said: “British politics has to change fundamentally in the interests of ordinary people, not in the interests of bankers.”

At the end of the meeting, all councillors were escorted to their vehicles by police. Full details of the savings package are pending further detailed figures from central government and Council decisions in February. The Mayor estimates the total budget cuts to be at £60m over the next four years, and it will be addressed in stages.

Photos by Heather Bishop.

For comment on the Lewisham cuts, click here.

For a video of the protest, click here.

Video and additional image found by Chris Stevenson.

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