Naked Politics Blogger
After seven long years of savage central government cuts to local authority budgets, the chickens are finally coming home to roost.
Every decade or so, almost without fail, there occurs an event that serves as a moral or socio-cultural wake-up call; a juncture in our society’s history which prompts a period of deep soul-searching and self-reflection as a nation.
In 1989, the Hillsborough disaster transformed modern football and safety standards and put the question of police accountability firmly in the spotlight for years to come. In 1993, the murder of toddler James Bulger by two 10-year old boys sent shockwaves through the moral conscience of the nation, and was described by Tony Blair as “the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name.” In 2008, the credit crunch saw not only an economic recession, but raised deep questions among ordinary people about globalisation and the dangers of an unregulated market economy, questions that are still under consideration.
The 14th June 2017 witnessed the most recent of these events. The fire at Grenfell tower was more than an unforeseen tragedy – it has become a pertinent symbol of austerity and inequality and its potentially lethal side-effects. Something has snapped in the British psyche since Grenfell. In particular, what has become clear is that cuts to local authority budgets as part of the austerity programme was a root cause of this scandal. As has been made abundantly clear by the evidence that has emerged since the disaster and discussed at length elsewhere, corners were cut by Kensington and Chelsea council in the maintenance of the tower that significantly compromised the safety of the building. It just so transpires than similar corners have been cut right across the country, as testified by the 600 tower blocks that have failed basic fire safety tests.
The question is therefore begged: why were such corners cut by a statutory body? As soon as one asks this question, the issue at stake becomes political.
The answer is that councils have been on the receiving end of some of the heaviest cuts witnessed since 2010, and have consequently had their capacity to deliver vital public services and fulfil their duties to protect communities drastically reduced. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that since 2010, council spending per person has been cut by nearly 24% on average, a total cut of over £11 billion.
You could be forgiven for thinking that, with the headlines dominated by the drama of Trump, Brexit and the general election result, the politics of local government and dreary council meetings with sleepy councillors is mundane and unimportant. However the financial resources available to local councils has far more of an impact on your everyday life than national politics. Cutting local authority budgets affects a number of vital services: Housing, social care, youth services, to name but a few. And the consequences have been severe.
In London, cuts to council budgets have seen youth services evaporate by an average of 36%. In my own borough of Southwark, where youth violence is a major challenge, the council has been forced to cut funding for youth services by over 70%. When one juxtaposes this with a sharp spike in gun and knife crime nationwide – 42% and 24% respectively, the first rise in four years – the link becomes all too clear.
A key duty of local authorities is to provide social housing for tenants on low-incomes. However with reduced budgets and government restrictions on council borrowing, the availability of social housing is at a 24-year low and over 100,000 people have been on the waiting list for social housing for over 5 years. Moreover as we saw with Grenfell, councils can no longer guarantee the proper maintenance and refurbishment of current social housing. The result is homelessness and tragedy.
Plenty has already been said on social care in the UK – a service provided primarily by local authorities. Cuts to local authorities have seen £4.6 billion cut from social care budgets since 2010 which, alongside a spike in demand for social care precipitated by an ageing population, has sparked a crisis in social care. Inadequate and poor-quality care for the most vulnerable in society has ensued.
These are but a few examples of the damage cuts to local authorities can do. At first glance, it would seem logical to cut local authority budgets first in a programme of austerity. After all, who needs libraries and youth clubs when we need to balance the books and ensure the economic stability of the nation?
However when you attack local authorities, you attack communities. And when you attack communities, you attack the very social heartbeat of a nation. The collateral damage of this attack is the very livelihood of individuals and families. This Conservative government’s policy of deep, mean-spirited and ill-thought out cuts to local authority budgets has gone far enough. It simply has to stop. It is tearing apart communities and – as the victims of knife crime, the survivors of Grenfell tower and the record numbers of individuals who are being made homeless will testify – it is destroying lives.