Steve Bassam on the choice facing the county council electorate this Thursday
Campaigning in this year’s local elections has brought me into contact with some remarkable people.
A trip to Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire meant I teamed up for a while with Mick Warner. He was a formerly a councillor and is now striving to win a seat back on the County Council. Mick is now wheelchair bound but no less energetic than in former years when he helped lead on fire service issues. There we were on a street stall, urging passers-by to take our leaflets and vote Labour back into office to protect local services.
Perhaps my most inspiring visit came recently in Rye, in East Sussex. Not natural Labour territory you might think. But beyond its twee, narrow cobbled streets, it’s like other communities with its own challenges. Labours PPC for Hastings and Rye, Sarah Owen was keen to show case local projects. One of these was ARRCC - Activities, Respite, Rehabilitation, Care Centres.
ARRCC provides support, training and a stimulating day care environment to people aged 18 to 65 who suffer from a range of disabilities, many of whom are in wheelchairs. Over a hundred Rye residents benefit from the services they provide in a now redundant school building, which the project has transformed into workshops and office space. The activities that users can access are terrific: from tapestry, mural and model making through to learning to fish, garden and horse driving.
On an annual turnover of less than £500,000 and with a mix of full and part time staff plus volunteers, the lives of an otherwise neglected group of wonderful people are made more fulfilling. Sadly the project, like countless others, is suffering from cuts through East Sussex County Council's budget. ARRCC lost 20% last year, will lose another 20% this year and there is no guarantee of funding being maintained even at standstill in the years to come.
How can it be right that projects targeting the most deprived and most in need of support are being hit so hard? I thought those who could take the strain were to be hardest hit. It seems not.
It was also at ARRCC where I met Neil. He suffers a double whammy. Cuts to the project supporting him and a substantial cut to his income through the dreaded bedroom tax. With severe mobility problems that are only set to worsen, Neil is losing £700 of income for the 'crime' of having a specially adapted housing association flat with a small additional room where he stores equipment. It is his home, he doesn't want to move and he needs the space. He is very angry and doesn't understand why the government is targeting him and others in a similar position.
When people go to the polls on Thursday, I hope wherever they are voting they have Neil and ARRCC, or their local equivalents, in mind. Together these individuals and organisations are feeling the brunt of Conservative-driven, LibDem-backed cuts to funding and personal incomes. Labour candidates meanwhile, like Mick and Sarah, are campaigning hard to expose the damage being done to people's lives – lives that the Prime Minister said would be the most protected from the Coalition’s austerity drive.
Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour’s Chief Whip in the Lords and a former leader of Brighton and Hove City Council
Published 29th April 2013