For what seems like an eternity now, we’ve known cuts have been coming, hanging over the national conversation – on the news, round the water cooler, in the pub – like a cloud about to break.
Google News UK has over 20,000 articles listed under the word “cuts” from the past 24 hours alone. But despite (and to some extent maybe because of) the ubiquity of the threat of cuts, the actual reality of what they will mean on a day-to-day, street-to-street, person-to-person level is rarely thought of.
Local government is all about the day-to-day. Indeed, so much so, that it often doesn’t make very compelling news stories. Rubbish collection, youth groups and planning applications just don’t make the same headlines as riot police, anarchists and Charlie Gilmour. But it is at local government level that the real pain of the cuts will be felt.
We’ve already seen impassioned pleas for local libraries to stay open at residents meetings across Lewisham. The closure of a local library seems a small thing in the context of global recession. But consider the apparently mundane day-to-day detail.
Every week a girl from New Cross comes home from school and goes to the small bedroom she shares with her big sister to do her homework. Often her sister is in a bad mood and won’t share the one desk they have between them. So the girl goes to the local library to finish her homework – but this particular week it’s been closed by the council. She’s too young to travel across borough to next-nearest library. The homework goes unfinished, the girl gets told off at school. Furious at the injustice of it she takes a dislike to the teacher and stops working hard in her lessons. Her grades get worse and she starts to resent going to school – one life is made a little bit worse.
The example is hypothetical, but local authorities have to take into account these kinds of complex cause-and-effect calculations every time they implement a policy. It’s a very hard task. No wonder then, that the most common talk coming out of council press offices lately is of the “very difficult decisions” that will have to be made as cuts come in.
The euphemism “difficult decision”, at this level, essentially means a direct trade off between council cash and an individual’s quality of life. Making a home care worker redundant means that an old man loses the weekly visit he used to wake up in the morning looking forward to. Shutting down a youth group means a young man will lose the male role model he’s lacking at home. Small things can have big impacts – and the decisions facing councils losing nearly ten per cent of their spending power next year will be bigger than these. It is a horrible position to be forced into.
Horrible, especially if you’ve spent your political life fighting the parties that are bringing in these cuts. Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham all have Labour (or in the case of Tower Hamlets left leaning ex-Labour) councils. Mayors Pipe, Rahman and Bullock have all expressed their regret – in varying degrees of vehemence and, perhaps, sincerity – at the cuts. But all have also had to concede that once Pickles has spoken and the numbers been crossed out – their hands are tied. The cuts must come whether they like it or not.
Even the supposedly radical Rahman administration in Tower Hamlets – recently dubbed “the heirs of Trotsky” by a Conservative councillor – is powerless to do anything more than express disgust. Addressing a demonstration at a cabinet meeting last week, Rahman denounced the cuts in the strongest possible terms. He said he did not accept them, but that he had “a legal obligation as mayor” to implement them.
Rahman’s Catch 22 situation is the same being experienced by Jules Pipe, who has used his position as Chair of the London Councils group to lobby government to ease the cuts – sadly to no avail.
“What can they do?” said the aforementioned Tower Hamlets Conservative to me, with a brief flash of glee in his eye, when asked if he expected the Rahman cabinet to stand up to the cuts. It is the question facing many a local authority in London. While central government holds the purse strings it is hard to see an answer.
It’s a damning reflection on the limitations of our democracy that elected officials at a local level are so helplessly bound to their masters at Westminster. The Coalition government talks a lot about the importance of localism, and devolving power to local authorities, and yet these cuts represent the biggest attack on the power of local government to actually make a positive difference to people’s lives. And ultimately, that’s the only power that matters.