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
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Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.