Blow for Cameron as Liverpool pulls out of the “big society”

Liverpool council says the coalition’s cuts make the project unworkable.

After the coalition's "big society tsar" was embarrassingly forced to reduce his hours, here's some more bad news for David Cameron's pet project.

Liverpool City Council has pulled out of the initiative after it concluded that the coming cuts made its participation impossible. It is particularly embarrassing for Cameron because, Lenin-like, he selected Liverpool as one of the four "vanguard communities" that would be the "training grounds of this change".

The head of Liverpool council, Joe Anderson, has written a letter explaining the decision to Cameron and it's worth quoting from at length. First, he says the government "has failed to deliver a single change that we have requested".

Liverpool has been doing the "Big Society" for many years. We call it "working with our communities" and it is something we are very much committed to. We pride ourselves on our excellent working relationships with our community and voluntary sectors, and indeed have done our upmost to support these sectors – as they are crucial to the success of our city.

He then warns that the loss of £100m of area-based grants and a huge £141m reduction in council spending has put many voluntary and community groups at risk.

[T]heir ability to help us improve the quality of life for Liverpool residents has been seriously undermined by two government decisions. Firstly, the loss of over £100m of Area Based Grants to Liverpool has put many organisations' very survival at risk. These funds, aimed at tackling deprivation, were widely utilised by the voluntary sector. Secondly, Liverpool's extremely poor local government settlement means a huge £141m reduction in council spending over the next two years. This level of cuts will significantly impact on council services, including the funding of many of our voluntary and community groups.

How can the City Council support the Big Society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?

He concludes: "Liverpool City Council can no longer support the 'Big Society' initiative, as a direct consequence of your funding decisions."

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An equally powerful critique of the coalition's approach comes from the television producer Phil Redmond (of Brookside and Hollyoaks fame). He told the Local Government Chronicle: "I went along with it all because I thought it would be a good way of getting things going, but it's been impossible to get any traction because of the cuts – everyone is dealing with post-Spending Review trauma."

Redmond had planned to lead a project to boost volunteering across Liverpool but was forced to put this on hold while National Museums Liverpool, which he chairs, deals with budget cuts of 15 per cent. He laments that "the big society has become subsumed by the cuts".

A similar complaint has been made by "Red Tory" Philip Blond, who warned that the "drive for cuts and deficit reduction" was "running too fast" for the big society to flourish.

What makes these criticisms so wounding for Cameron is that they come from figures committed to the principles of the "big society". Tory backbenchers who dismiss it as "BS" can safely be ignored, but figures such as Redmond and Blond cannot.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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