The na­tional calamity you won’t see on the front pages

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - John Har­ris

We can­not sur­vive as we are be­yond this next fi­nan­cial year. There is no money. I am not cry­ing wolf. I never cry wolf.” So says the Con­ser­va­tive leader of Tor­bay coun­cil, in Devon: a lo­cal au­thor­ity that de­liv­ers the full range of ser­vices but can no longer func­tion at even the most ba­sic level. Af­ter years of bone-crunch­ing aus­ter­ity, by 2020 it will be faced with an­other £12m of cuts – so the most ob­vi­ous op­tion is to down­grade it­self to a district coun­cil, hand over its most es­sen­tial work to the bigger Devon county coun­cil, and hope for the best. Whether this will im­prove any­thing is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion: since 2010, in real terms, Devon’s fund­ing from gov­ern­ment has been cut by 76%.

Northamp­ton­shire’s coun­cil has al­ready ef­fec­tively gone bank­rupt. Som­er­set, Nor­folk and Lan­cashire are re­port­edly faced with com­pa­ra­ble prob­lems. And in our big ci­ties, sim­i­lar sto­ries have been un­fold­ing for years, as the great cuts ma­chine set in mo­tion by Ge­orge Os­borne in 2010 con­tin­ues to grind away, while both costs and de­mand for ba­sic ser­vices in­crease.

Bris­tol faces a £108m fund­ing gap by 2023, and is cutting ser­vices ac­cord­ingly. Hav­ing al­ready hacked well over £200m from its bud­gets, Leeds is in the midst of mak­ing £38m of sav­ings in a sin­gle year. In New­cas­tle, by 2020, in­sid­ers reckon that over half the city coun­cil’s spend­ing will in ef­fect have been slashed within a decade. Many au­thor­i­ties are putting up coun­cil tax, but that doesn’t come close to eas­ing the economies they have to make. And the re­sults are ob­vi­ous: less com­pre­hen­sive child pro­tec­tion, less dependable care for older peo­ple, fewer chil­dren’s cen­tres, more rub­bish in the streets – and yet more dire dam­age to a so­cial fab­ric that has been pulled apart for nearly a decade.

Why is this na­tional calamity so un­der-re­ported? Some of the an­swer is about the con­tin­u­ing tragedy of Brexit. Po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ists who work them­selves into a lather about this or that item of West­min­ster gos­sip hear the dread phrase “lo­cal gov­ern­ment” and glaze over.

It is some to­ken of White­hall ne­glect that con­fu­sion still sur­rounds the Tory plan to abol­ish the core grant given from cen­tral gov­ern­ment to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and make them com­pletely de­pen­dent on busi­ness rates and coun­cil tax. All told, se­nior politi­cians rou­tinely treat non-West­min­ster peo­ple as a mere an­noy­ance: last week, for in­stance, it

was re­vealed that though the gov­ern­ment has com­mis­sioned an up­dated of­fi­cial as­sess­ment of the likely ef­fects of Brexit on Greater Manch­ester, it will not let the peo­ple who run that part of the coun­try see it.

There have been times when the UK’s deep ten­dency to cen­tralise has been mo­men­tar­ily held back, as ev­i­denced by the devo­lu­tion to Scot­land, Wales and Lon­don, and Os­borne’s en­cour­age­ment of the re­birth of city re­gions and the ar­rival of elected “metro may­ors”. But even in those cases, White­hall’s habit of cling­ing to power and the ef­fects of aus­ter­ity have got in the way.

Yet here is a re­mark­able thing. For all their tra­vails, some peo­ple in charge of coun­cils are among the most in­ven­tive, en­er­getic politi­cians I have met. Fig­ures such as Manch­ester’s Richard Leese, New­cas­tle’s Nick Forbes, Leeds’s Ju­dith Blake and Ply­mouth’s re­cently re-elected Tu­dor Evans – all Labour peo­ple – are lo­cated where their poli­cies play out, deeply fa­mil­iar with lo­cal nu­ances and com­plex­i­ties, and able to move fast. (Weirdly, they are now un­der at­tack from their own side: the peo­ple at the top of Labour have plans to end the sys­tem whereby coun­cil lead­ers are elected by other coun­cil­lors, and im­pose one in which their se­lec­tion would be in the hands of the party’s newly ex­panded mem­ber­ship

– a brazenly fac­tional move that may be il­le­gal, mis­un­der­stands how coun­cils are deeply col­lec­tive bod­ies, and threat­ens con­stant ten­sion and dis­rup­tion.)

Mean­while, an ex­per­i­ment in par­tic­i­pa­tory, non-party democ­racy in my adopted home­town of Frome, Som­er­set, high­lights the re­vived be­lief in the power of truly lo­cal gov­ern­ment, as does the re­lated re­birth of town and par­ish coun­cils in other parts of the coun­try. How would such ex­am­ples of en­ergy and cre­ativ­ity be­come the norm? Ev­ery­thing ought to start with an ac­knowl­edg­ment that the sys­tem is now an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble mess. It amounts to a random ar­chi­pel­ago of town, par­ish, district, county, city and bor­ough coun­cils, new city re­gions, po­lice forces and elected com­mis­sion­ers of­ten based on com­pletely dif­fer­ent ge­ogra­phies, lo­cal en­ter­prise part­ner­ships and an ar­ray of other bod­ies – not to men­tion an in­creas­ingly cen­tralised ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, and a health ser­vice now so com­pli­cated that very few peo­ple un­der­stand it.

Any po­lit­i­cal pro­ject with rad­i­cal in­ten­tions ought to con­sider the con­trast­ingly clear, com­par­a­tively sim­ple mod­els in most of western Europe: the Span­ish struc­ture of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, prov­inces and re­gional “au­tonomous com­mu­ni­ties” isn’t a bad place to be­gin. Learn­ing from such ex­am­ples should lead on to gen­uine fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence for coun­cils, based on a de­cent share of in­come tax and the abil­ity to raise funds for big projects through bond is­sues, and a dras­tic re­draw­ing of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of na­tional and lo­cal gov­ern­ment – not least in the area of ba­sic pub­lic ser­vices.

If the NHS is to sur­vive, it is go­ing to have to de­ci­sively shift from treat­ment to­wards preven­tion, some­thing that can only be or­gan­ised at the so­cial grass­roots. It is high time we broke up the dys­func­tional Depart­ment for Work and Pen­sions, and handed the ad­min­is­tra­tion of most ben­e­fits and the job­cen­tre sys­tem to lo­cal ac­tors who know what ac­tu­ally works. Ed­u­ca­tion ur­gently needs to be re-lo­calised. If our trou­bled high streets are to find a new role, it will be peo­ple liv­ing next to them who will have to be given the power to find it. To even be­gin to solve the na­tional hous­ing cri­sis, we will also have to al­low lo­cal, city and re­gional politi­cians to take the ini­tia­tive.

Across the board, we need to leave be­hind the lin­ger­ing fan­tasy that our fate is wholly in the hands of na­tional politi­cians who can some­how blow the dust off the failed in­sti­tu­tional ma­chin­ery of the 20th cen­tury and save us. That world is gone, and its pass­ing ought to be marked with a col­lec­tive recog­ni­tion that at the point when coun­cils ought to be in the midst of re­vival and rein­ven­tion, they are ac­tu­ally be­ing killed. God knows, Bri­tain is now well used to the pol­i­tics of self-harm, but how amaz­ingly stupid is that?

ILLUSTRATION: ELEANOR SHAKE­SPEARE

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