West Berkshire SOS (Save Our Services) was started by Green Party members in February 2016 to campaign against deep cuts to vital local services proposed by the ruling Conservative group on West Berkshire Council.
The Tories, who had just awarded themselves a 16.5% pay rise, planned to impose spending cuts of £17.5m on some of the most vulnerable people in society and local charities such as Mencap.
They blamed George Osborne’s austerity programme – for which, of course, they had enthusiastically campaigned in the 2015 general election – for the cuts.
Many of the cuts affected young people and their families, with children’s centres shut, school bus routes closed, and school crossing patrols sacked.
SOS argued that children were being put at risk and many of the savings were so small – for example, school crossing patrols were paid just £2,000 a year – that they could have been avoided if the councillors had not been so greedy: a case of “pay rises for Tory councillors, cuts for everyone else”.
Steve Masters started an SOS Facebook page while David Marsh and Carolyne Culver organised two well attended public meetings. We then worked with other local parties and groups to fight the cuts and propose constructive alternatives.
The Tory proposal that attracted the most widespread criticism was to close eight of West Berkshire’s nine libraries, and both mobile libraries, leaving just the main library in Newbury to serve the whole district.
We held protests inside libraries and marched through Newbury with eight “RIP” gravestones, one for each threatened library, made by Green Party member Felix Brunner.
We also protested long and loud outside and inside the council chamber at the full council meeting where they voted on the cuts, and Lee Dillon, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the council, praised the SOS campaign. Outside, the SOS flag was hoisted on top of the council offices.
Although the Conservatives initially voted through the cuts, they were forced to backtrack and save all but one of the libraries. The public toilets at The Wharf in Newbury were closed for a few days and then reopened following a public outcry – just as SOS had warned. (The Tories then had the cheek to claim they had “saved the toilets”!)
Many other suggestions put forward by SOS have been quietly adopted by the council and we continue the fight to defend our local public services. Meanwhile the Conservatives continue with their policy for West Berkshire of pay more – get less. We have the chance to vote them out in May 2019.