Nick Forbes: Newcastle’s king of cuts

Newcastle’s council leader has decided to make £100m of budget cuts over the next three years. Andrew Hankinson meets the man behind the budget.

I live in Newcastle upon Tyne. The rest of the country usually sends us cash to help pay for our council services, but the Government's reducing the amount, and now we face insufficient funds. Labour's Nick Forbes, the city's council leader, has a plan: he's budgeted for three years instead of the usual one and decided to make £100m of cuts, including closing 10 of our 18 libraries. We're being “consulted” until 1 February.

Forbes' popularity sunk a bit when he announced his plan. He says we should blame the Government, not him. He said it on the Observer's front page (he co-signed a letter with Sheffield and Liverpool leaders, warning that “forces of social unrest” will “start to smoulder” if the cuts continue). He said it in a Guardian interview. And he said it in a letter to the Prime Minister (he's still waiting for a reply).

Then the conspiracy theories started: the figures are exaggerated to give Forbes a political weapon; the libraries are being cut ahead of other services because it'll provoke the most publicity (Andrew Gilligan suggested that in the Telegraph); ambitious Forbes is using the cuts to raise his profile and climb the Labour ranks. So now everyone is attacking Forbes, rather than the Government. So I asked him for an interview and he said yes.

I prepare by attending a Wednesday evening council meeting. A mother is pleading with Forbes to change his mind about closing a short-break unit for children with learning disabilities: “Imagine 18 years of nappy changing, medication, neurologists, consultants, orthopaedic specialists, psychologists, speech and language therapists, physiotherapy appointments. Imagine regularly cleaning faeces from the bedroom wall at 3am.”

She doesn't cry. When Forbes stands up to reply, he's hard to hear because several children with learning disabilities are making noises at the back. Nobody hushes them. Everybody looks away. When Forbes finishes the children leave, mostly in wheelchairs. And I think: the argument is over. Close the libraries. Give them the money. Give them everything.

Later that night I walk to the Assembly Rooms, where 300 people have gathered to campaign against the library closures. Local TV is here. There's a panel of speakers, including playwright Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot. He mentions mining, talks about class and compares Nick Forbes to Norman Tebbit. Then he analyses the budget proposal.

“These are estimates,” he says, “So if we say they are two per cent out, which is statistically a perfectly reasonable margin of error, we could have saved all the libraries and half the arts.”

“What I'm suggesting is we're being sold a lemon,” he says. “Because Nick Forbes wants, quite rightly, to make a stink about central cuts, he's connived to make hysterical headlines instead of trying to protect our libraries and our enormously successful arts organisations. Forbes, for his own political aggrandisement, is trying to cut as much as possible. Quite clearly he wants to make a name for himself. He wants a platform to rail at the Coalition.”

The lady next to me says: “Forbes is very ambitious.”

Her husband replies: “We should break him.”

Audience members are invited up to speak. Someone shouts, “Forbes is a Tory!” People start to leave after the first few mentions of Cuba.

The next day I go through the budget proposal (pdf) with two accountants. The figures are vague, considering the council is using this document to persuade people their libraries need to close. For instance, the £100m funding gap includes £20.8m for inflation over three years (in the 2012/13 budget it was £1.5m for one year); £5m in lost income due to “economic downturn”; and a conveniently round £10m is given for redundancies.

On Friday I interview Forbes (with a press officer) at his council office. He's 39 years old. He grew up in Weardale, County Durham. His mum was a housewife and his dad was a postman before becoming head of a lead-mining museum. He went to Wolsingham Comprehensive (three As at A-Level), worked at McDonalds for a year (three stars), then studied social and political sciences at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was president of the students' union (Andrew Gilligan was his campaign manager). He got a 2:1.

After graduating he joined an NHS management scheme and did a placement in Newcastle (his mum was seriously injured in a car crash so he returned to help look after her). He completed the course in two years, then developed services at a local GP for two years. Now he runs a charity called Involve North East, which he says “gives communities a voice in health and social care issues”. It has ten staff and a turnover of £350,000 per year.

He was elected to the council in 2000. When Labour lost control of the city in 2004 he was elected deputy leader of the opposition. In 2007 he was elected leader. In 2011 Labour won back the council and Forbes became council leader. He says it was immediately apparent that the annual budget would be insufficient for the coming crisis, so he created the three-year budget and “it became truly scary”.

“At first we couldn't quite believe our projections were right,” he says, “Because the numbers were just so awful. But we verified them, checked them and came to the conclusion that the way in which the Government was skewing the local government finance settlement away from areas like Newcastle would have a hugely detrimental impact, and therefore the only way to deal with it was to be entirely honest about the long-term impact of austerity.”

But accountants are always pessimistic, aren't they? Could the figures be wrong?

“Believe me, I've not just taken his figures at face value,” he says. “The entire cabinet team has been through this in detail over the last three months, and interrogated them and interrogated them and interrogated them, until we can be absolutely confident that these figures are accurate predictions of what the situation will be.”

And what about the conspiracy – did you ever see a lower figure for the required cuts and ask someone to revise it upwards?

“No,” he says. “In fact we revised it downwards as part of the challenge process that we went through.”

You never saw an inflation figure of less than £20.8m, then asked for it to be revised upwards?

“No. Is anybody suggesting we did?”

People are speculating. Why will you lose £5m due to an economic downturn?

“Well, because we run a big car-parking business. Well, it's not just car-parking, it's things like decreased rents from premises we own.”

Can you see why people read that document and believe it's open to manipulation?

“You say it's open to manipulation. What I say is, behind it is a whole series of documents and facts and figures which back it up.” (You can see these documents here – pdf.)

Two figures are given for inflation - £20.8m on one page and £21.7m on the next page. Mistakes happen, but surely there shouldn't be a discrepancy of £900,000 on the main document you're using to persuade people their libraries have to close?

Forbes says nothing. The press officer says I shouldn't have brought this to Forbes. I repeat that mistakes happen, but it shouldn't happen on this document. Forbes says nothing.

People say you're ambitious and are using this to raise your profile. Any response?

“What a completely spurious and insulting argument. What I'm doing is trying to lead this city through the most difficult financial situation that it's ever faced at some personal cost.”

What personal cost?

“The sleepless nights. The fact that everywhere I go in this city people talk to me about the impact of the cuts. The fact that I did not come into politics to do this kind of thing. And yet I think I have a responsibly to make sure that the city council is viable for the future, because on our current predictions by 2018 the council won't be able to exist.”

What are your political ambitions? Do you want to be an MP? A Cabinet member?

“If you had asked me that question before I became leader of the council, I would have said I want to be an MP. Now I'm leader of the council I can see what difference I can make, so I intend to be leader of the council here for as long as I have support of my colleagues and the city to do so.”

So you don't want to be an MP anymore?

“Well, why would I be an MP when what I can do is make a difference here in Newcastle?”

Better money? Spend some time in London?

“But here I get to enjoy a quality of life, I get to see a direct impact of the policies that I'm able to introduce...”

I interrupt a long speech to ask about revenue-raising. I suggest some of the ideas one of the accountants had. I suggest selling the council's share in the local airport, but it generates money so he doesn't want to sell it. I suggest doing more to get council tax adjusted so that it works in a low-value area. He says he is lobbying for changes. I suggest a hotel room tax, but he says it would make us non-competitive and he thinks it would be illegal.

We finish. The press officer asks me not to write about the error. He says I shouldn't have asked Forbes about it. He says Forbes is given lots of documents to look at. I say the error's no big deal, but there shouldn't be a mistake in a document the council puts on its website to persuade people their libraries should close, and Forbes should be able to answer questions about it because it's only 40 pages and he wrote the introduction. I switch on my phone and see Lee Hall has just written a blog mentioning the error and the suspicious figures, and I'm thinking: why is the council less familiar with its budget document than the guy who wrote Billy Elliot is?

Then it's Saturday and I'm at my son's birthday party. I get an email, then a phone call. It's the press officer about the error. He says the error was the treasurer's fault. Fine, but he repeats that I shouldn't have asked Forbes about it, because “the leader doesn't get bogged down in the minutiae of the individual cost pressures”, and I get angry, because it's not minutiae, it's £20.8m, and the leader should get bogged down in it, and the press officer says the figures are “constantly changing” due to changes in the Government's figures, and as I stand outside my son's birthday party I'm thinking: this budget doesn't sound very robust at all.

Editor's note: In a statement, Newcastle City Council said that it "strongly refutes the suggestion that there are inaccurate figures in the budget report. Estimates within in it are based on the best information available at the time. Since the budget was produced the government has announced further cuts in local government funding."

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes has responded to the piece here.

Ten of the 18 libraries in Newcastle would be closed under Forbes' plan. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder