Another day, another raft of headlines and protests over Trump and Brexit. Meanwhile, away from the cameras, another bit of Britain quietly shuts down.
A swimming pool closes in Leeds. A library shuts in Swindon. Essex cuts its ‘meals-on-wheels’ for old people. Children are put at risk in Birmingham as a specialist team is axed. A ‘lollipop lady’ who helps kids across a road in Staffordshire loses her job.
Piece by painful piece, familiar things are disappearing. Things have been part of our social fabric for decades. And it’s happening by stealth – a silent scandal attracting few protests and placards.
Over the last six years, the spending power of the councils that run local services has been cut by nearly 25% in real terms. Britain’s biggest council, Birmingham, for example, has made nearly £800 million of cuts. Its youth service has almost disappeared, 12,000 council workers have been laid off and rough sleeping has quadrupled. Councils are now looking at a £5.8 billion gap between what they can spend in 2020 and what they need.
The Local Government Association’s Chairman, Lord Porter – a Conservative – has said: “If councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks and open spaces, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres, turned off every street light and shut all discretionary bus routes they would not have saved enough money to plug this gap by the end of the decade.”
That is from a press release which barely got noticed. To a news editor, council cuts stories are about faceless organisations and meaningless numbers.
Human and painful
But for individuals, it’s human and painful. It’s the old woman whose cherished trip to the local library has gone. It’s the children whose swimming club has closed. It’s the old man who is left to cope at home when he can’t, the teenager with mental health issues who isn’t being properly monitored.
Social care is the big-ticket item for local councils. It’s the biggest budget line and the most crucial service – protecting children-at-risk, pensioners, and vulnerable adults. And because they’ve fought to maintain their care budgets, councils have had to cut other stuff big-time – culture by over 40% for example. Nearly 500 libraries have gone. Swimming pools and museums are in the crosshairs. And even then, nine in ten county directors of adult social care still believe their budgets to be either ‘severe’ or ‘critical’.
Meanwhile central government depicts the councils as a bunch of wasters making a fuss about nothing. When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron said Tory-run Oxfordshire should find ‘back-office’ savings instead of cutting children’s centres, when the council’s grants from government, excluding ring-fenced schools money, had been cut by a third, or £72 million. After government cuts led councils to close 67 libraries in 2016, the minister Rob Wilson threatened them with action under a 1964 Act of Parliament for not providing a comprehensive service.
Council cuts pay for tax cuts
The cuts might be understandable if the country was undergoing a war or a full-on financial crisis. But it’s not. Even if you accept that the budget deficit can only be cut by raising taxes or cutting spending – which I don’t because investment for growth is an alternative – then these cuts are far from inevitable. The ghastly truth is they are happening to pay for tax cuts.
In the 2016 Autumn Statement, another £3.5 billion of cuts to spending were confirmed – but also £6.7 billion of cuts to business taxes. And the last Budget also gave a £400 tax cut for anyone earning between £45,000 and £100,000.
Translate these numbers into words, and it’s the poor, the young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable who are suffering to finance handouts for the healthy and wealthy.
And it will get worse. The government is cutting its grants to councils from nearly 50% of their income in 2010 to less than 10% in 2020, leaving them to fund services by raising council taxes and business rates. See the plan? The government gets the credit for tax cuts and the council gets the blame for service cuts.
Private opulence, public squalor
Areas with big houses and successful businesses will be able to raise decent sums while those with poor people living in poor housing and struggling businesses will have even less than now. As individuals, we get richer. As a society, we get poorer.
It’s nothing new. In his 1958 book The Affluent Society, the economist JK Galbraith talked of the “private opulence and public squalor” that characterises “a community where public services have failed to keep abreast of private consumption.”
The Britain many of us grew up in – a land of busy day centres, noisy swimming pools, quiet libraries and cheerful lollipop ladies – is being systematically stripped away, simply to put more money into voters’ pockets.
Elections this May
So, can those of us who oppose this scandal do anything about it? Yes, we can. We can probably do more about this than we can about Trump and Brexit – at least here and now.
There are elections this May in many of the cities, county councils and unitary authorities that are responsible for these services. It’s a chance to campaign for good councillors who can provide services on a shoestring, stand up to ministers and fight their corner. It’s a chance to tell people that services are not being cut because of migrants or Brussels, but by Westminster and Whitehall. And yes, it’s also a chance to talk to people on the doorstep about Trump and Brexit and win back a majority for progressive politics.
Come on. Let’s get our country back.