You cannot open the Journal at the moment without reading another article about local authority cuts. The furore shows that local politics are alive and kicking, but those who shout loudest may be obscuring the full picture.
Despite how it might appear in letters column, it is not just Newcastle that is being forced to make draconian cuts. Last week, Gateshead, North Tyneside and Northumberland more quietly announced their proposals as well. Linda Arkley in North Tyneside could not resist a dig at the Labour group in Newcastle by accusing them of ‘slash and burn’ but never mind.
It is not even just happening in the North East. Liverpool is losing £252 per head in cuts, Manchester is losing £209, Birmingham is losing £166 and Newcastle is losing £162. It cannot be said too often that the cuts are unfairly distributed across the country and that North Dorset is only losing £2 per person.
Despite the claims and counter claims from Lee Hall and others, it is not just about the arts and libraries. As a trustee of Seven Stories, I am greatly heartened by the surge of popular support for the independent arts organisations in the city which are threatened with 100% cut in funding from the City Council over the next three years, To quote from one of the many letters of support for Seven Stories:
“The cultural life of Newcastle is important to me and is the envy of much of the UK. It is one of the things that makes Newcastle a great place to live and it creates the jobs and investment that we badly need by encouraging tourists to visit and business to set up here.”
There is more at threat. In Newcastle, the direct youth service will be wound up. Youth workers on the ground provide a safety valve for young people and divert them away from trouble. The play service will be withdrawn and the parks service will be vastly reduced, just at the time that so many of our Victorian parks have been restored. Anti social behaviour and vandalism will increase.
Even though the Council is intent on protecting the most vulnerable, and maintaining its statutory commitments to the elderly and disabled, the withdrawal of respite care at centres like Cheviot View in Longbenton will cause great suffering. There is a tacit agreement when it comes to looking after people in the community that the council does enough to back up the volunteer carers and make their life bearable.
Cuts to the voluntary sector including advice agencies like CAB will come at a time of distress and hardship that seems certain to follow from the reform of welfare benefits. The loss of jobs in town halls is far greater than at Alcan also but sadly receives far less public sympathy.
I admire Nick Forbes because he is prepared to give such strong leadership. In a comparatively short time, he has gone a long way to becoming a voice for the region. It is shameful that people accuse him of political ambition and it is so sad that an important debate has degenerated into a slanging match.
But whilst the City Treasurer can show how the sums are calculated, I worry about brandishing a headline figure of such magnitude. It makes sense to plan strategically for three years and but I would want to proceed incrementally and make each reduction in service as reluctantly as possible. Even in the last week the need for such severe reductions in public expenditure has been questioned by unlikely bedfellows like Boris Johnson.
Once commitments are withdrawn and services lost, they will never return in our lifetime. The City Council will lose a place at the table in the cultural sector which it has done so much to cherish and support. Its role in civil society will be diminished and we will all be the poorer for that.
There is talk of the gaps being covered by volunteers. It is an great opportunity for social enterprises and voluntary organisations and some may rise to the challenge. Jesmond Swimming Pool is an outstanding example of what can be achieved by a community group but it would be surprising if local facilities could be handed over to voluntary organisations to any great extent or that volunteers could runs libraries entirely on their own.
Neither will philanthropists fill the gap. I know that the late Alan Reece bought the post office in Wylam but such acts of great generosity are few and far between. ( I have fond memories of arguing with Alan about how he should spend his money and mourn his passing.) Philanthropy works at its best building new buildings and priming the pump. It does not have the means or the mind set to take on regular running costs of voluntary organisations. Some of the ideas currently being floated for increasing philanthropy are fanciful.
The truth is that voluntary effort and voluntary funding need to be underpinned by a strong and outward looking local authority which can promote such partnerships. The Dean of Newcastle Cathedral reminded the conference of local authorities and faith communities in Liverpool of the words of the prophet Jeremiah to ““Seek the welfare of the City for in its welfare will you find your own”. Cities are too important to let decline.
When the coalition government announced the first package of austerity measures, the savings expected of local authorities, as then unspecified, were the most ominous element in the proposals. Now we know their full and unpalatable impact. Is a degree of ideology coming into play by rolling back the local state in the northern outposts of the land?
My contribution to this new world dawning will be to cut the grass on the green outside my house when the local authority lawnmowers have packed up for the last time. But as I push the mower up and down I will be questioning to myself whether this was all really necessary. This government has placed too much importance on austerity and left Nick Forbes, Linda Arkley, you and me in this mess.
George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene – shepherdsdene.co.uk