For three months, I’ve been travelling around the country and talking to council service users who will be affected by the government’s public sector cuts. NLP published a first report from this trip a month ago.
In this second report, I talk to service users as councils agree which services will be cut and finalise budgets based on much-reduced local government settlements (council budgets for 2011 - 2012 will be set by March).
This has been a mad spell: councils and unions at war over mass redundancies (even though big public sector unions are generally proving slow to ballot); desperate Lib Dem councils like Newcastle holding off cuts announcements while they hold out for better settlements from their own party in government; cuts decisions struck out on judicial review on account of consultation failures; bitching about nepotism as some departments and staff are preserved ahead of others; clashes between protestors councillors and the police at council meetings (see more here) – so it has disintegrated on the ground.
The bigger picture hasn’t been scintillating, either. It is my view (and not only mine) that service-salvage priorities split along class lines early on. It seemed to me that in January (around the time of Ed Balls’ ascent to shadow chancellor and u-turn on anti-cuts rhetoric), the self-appointed ‘influential’ left (the Labour shadow cabinet, the national leftwing media and the usual cast of hangers-on) decided which services and functions were worthy of rescue mission: the NHS, libraries, forests and – bringing up the rear – the EMA. Those services and facilities play a part in lives across the board, of course, but, with the possible exception of the EMA, they can be construed as middle-class priorities.
At the very least, they move middle-class imaginations. They certainly took centre-stage in mainstream political and press campaigns – the read-ins, the resources, the celebrity
endorsements. People with drug and alcohol problems, or mental illnesses, or who use adult care services – well, their lifebelts may still arrive, although I’m not sure who will fling them. Fine work is being done at local level, but at the time of writing anyway, we were still waiting for the bourgeois uprising on behalf of people on drugs, the dole and benefits. David Cameron is taking hits on welfare reform, but the kind of mercy people need is in short supply in this censorious age.
Newcastle and Gateshead
I meet Jim Davison in the tiny, two-desk office that serves as the Launchpad service http://launchpadncl.org.uk/ in Newcastle’s Holy Jesus hospital building (Launchpad is a support and inclusion service for people with mental illnesses). Davison suffers from psychosis, has auditory hallucinations (“except they’re not hallucinations – they’re real. Ha ha ha…”) and is a recovering alcoholic. He is clever – beautifully articulate, coherent, constructive and political. There is not much ignoring the miles that he has on the clock, though: his brown eyes are cloudy, his hair grey and his voice rough – he says he’s a heavy smoker. His prescriptions include “antipsychotics, diazepam, nearly the whole benzo family…I have high levels of social phobia, so I take medication for that as well.”
Davison collects benefits - which is, of course, where he becomes an impossible sell in our era’s centrist, hypercritical, anti-welfare narrative. He lives in a council flat and “I get housing benefit. I get council tax rebate. I get income support. I got a letter saying I was going to be reassessed [for income support eligibility].”
The Daily Mail would shriek “workshy!” at this point.
I’m not convinced that laziness is Davison’s big lifestyle driver, though.
For one thing, he does work – he volunteers at Launchpad several days a week and attends classes besides. For another – it seems impossible that anyone would actively choose the type of life he describes.
Davison says that at the height of his alcoholism, he was homeless (in arctic Edinburgh), rotting in wrecked buildings and garages. The rest of his tale isn’t enviable: “I lived with my cousin in Benwell… then, I was moved into a community mental health hostel. I hated the place (people were encouraged to report on each other)... I went back to Wallsend. I knew the housing officer there. I stayed with my mother and then got the flat I’ve got now.” The point is obvious. Nobody who is well chooses this type of life. Mental illness chooses it for you. It doesn’t matter how punitive government policy is, or how heavy the clunking fist – off meds and out of the system, guys like Davison plunge. He has a fine mind, but there’s no brink in it. That’s the nature of breakdown.
There’s plenty of it around, as there always has been. At a women’s group in Gateshead, I spoke with about 15 older women who were collecting incapacity benefit because of illnesses like severe depression. Most had worked and paid tax and national insurance for years – 30 years at HMRC in one case, 20 years at BHS in another – before age and ill-health interfered, as they do. Some said they were eased, or bullied, out of jobs and/or better places in the
work hierarchy, which was when their problems with depression set in. They were all dreading their soon-to-be-held reassessments for incapacity benefit. All knew their chances of finding a job in Gateshead were small: “Every time there’s something comes through the post, I’m wondering is it going to be that letter? How dare these people stop my benefit? Who is going to decide?”
Jim Davison’s immediate concern is the loss of the Clubhouse – a centre for people with mental health problems which Newcastle council is merging with another facility to cut costs. ”I go there for the digital photography [classes] and the walking (the Clubhouse has a walking club and a gym club and so on).” I wince when he says this. I can almost hear Paul Dacre writing the place off as a taxpayer-funded holiday spot for wasters. I know it, Davison knows it and the women in Gateshead know it - the authenticity of mental illness has become impossible
Anyway. News reports suggest that Newcastle will make more than 600 people redundant
It seems that 30 people will go in the benefits department, which means benefits recipients will have to wait longer for service. Vacancies will not be filled in care management. Libraries and leisure centres will be saved, though, and council tax frozen. Some service providers tell me that they still haven’t heard if they’ll be funded – they feel Newcastle is dragging the chain and they have no idea why.
Around the country, the rest churns in the vortex. People tell me they feel that councils are protecting council staff and departments at the expense of the voluntary sector (if councils cut voluntary groups, rather than directly-employed council staff, they shift responsibility for redundancy payments to those voluntary groups). Others complain that management divides and rules as it decides which people will stay, or go. Budgets for the 2011 to 2012 financial year must be finalised by March. Claws and knives are out.
I can’t tell you how deeply I resent Labour’s big wheels for refusing to take a coherent stance against council cuts in this first year. It’s almost too late now and they know it. Optimists will turn up to tell us that the troops will rally for the second year – that the social fallout from 2011-2012 will drive the party to set parameters for a co-ordinated ground-level response. I don’t know about that. Activists may win good local battles (god knows I want the revolution as badly as the next old Trot), but Miliband’s choking centrism is throttling the rest. It is time that Labour argued against council tax freezes. An accurate narrative about local government’s substantial reserves would also be useful, no matter how that narrative dovetails with Pickles’.
Some councils have shown imagination - if not courage, exactly - in tackling cuts. We’ve heard about asset rationalising (although selling public buildings is difficult and controversial); role, service and council mergers (ditto); cuts to capital spending and cross-party and community input as councils have tried to paint thin. What we haven’t heard, or seen, or even sensed is Miliband razing the past with a new line on fair distribution. Meanwhile, Rome burns,
etc. Protestors, police and councillors have raged at each other at recent council meetings as councils begin to vote budgets through. March will be messy as councils attempt to finalise budget decisions at full council
“My guess is Labour will position itself at the head of the protests and the mass marches, and make repeated declarations of sorrow at having to do the coalition’s very dirty work - and then it will do it anyway,” great lefty realist Dave Osler wrote recently.
That is my guess, too. I have written of my disappointment with Lewisham mayor Steve Bullock’s readiness to cut services (I live in in Lewisham). His council looked to agree a harsh list of cuts in November, even while protestors rioted outside. Islington signed cuts off last week as protestors were chucked out of the gallery. At the local level, there is no doubt that Labour can and should be dong more to fight.
I go to Middlesbrough, where a bright-faced woman called Amanda Buck takes me around the soon-to-be-closed Breckon Hill community centre.
She talks about the knock-on effects of council cuts. The centre is threatened because it relies on income it makes from hiring rooms to community and council groups. Those groups are losing their funding as Middlesbrough council makes austerity adjustments.
“Nobody’s got the budget to hire the rooms out, so we’ve had a decrease in staff and a decrease in grants available to the facility – even though we’ve had a 38% increase in people requiring our services.”
Services include back-to-work support and retraining for people who are losing jobs, and for locals whose cafes and takeaways are going bust in the slump. There are also work placements for young people on projects (that were once) funded by council and daycentres for people with learning and physical disabilities.
The groups use the centre in big numbers (between 400 and 800 people a week, Buck says) because it is so accessible – central and wheelchair-friendly, with parking at the school next door and its own sensibly-priced cafe (for which the centre grows its own produce).
The National Lottery provided some funding, but the centre’s trust doesn’t expect that to continue and is paying Buck’s salary out of its own reserves (the payments stop in July). The government cut the Future Jobs Fund last year – that paid for a staff member and work placements for young people keen for employment. It’s obvious where this is all going. Middlesbrough already has the worst unemployment rate in the country.
Last words - for now
So. I will visit everyone again later this year to see how things have progressed. The government is stuttering, but the left needs to bash it from all angles.