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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Low turnout may not be enough to save Zac Goldsmith

Demographic patterns in mayoral elections do not replicate those at general elections. 

It is a truism in politics to say that older people vote. Almost exactly a year ago - the day before the General Election - ComRes published a briefing note for our clients pointing out that with large leads particularly amongst older people, as well as among the affluent and those who owned their home, the Conservatives were in the dominant position as the country headed to the polls.           

Turnout is one of the most difficult parts of polling to get right, but history was unequivocal in suggesting that these groups were overwhelmingly the most likely to vote in a General Election. This gave David Cameron the advantage, whatever the headline numbers in the polls were saying, and Labour would need a change in behaviour of historic proportions in order to make it to Downing Street.           

It is in the same spirit that a number of commentators have written articles raising the prospects of an upset in the election for Mayor of London. Different arguments have been used, but the central thrust has tended to be that, despite Sadiq Khan’s lead overall, there are turnout advantages not picked up in polling which benefit the Conservatives and which could produce a shock result.            

This is the first point made by Asa Bennett when advising “Don't write Zac Goldsmith off as London Mayor – he can still win this thing”, while Adam Bienkov has suggested that a low turnout “will inevitably help the Tories, whose voters tend to be older, wealthier and more likely to turn up to the polls.”           

While these arguments make intuitive sense, they make one fatal assumption: that demographic patterns in mayoral elections replicate those at general elections.           

Firstly, it is important to point out that there are no exact numbers on who actually votes at elections. The paper copies of marked electoral registers are kept separately by local authorities and contain no demographic information anyway.            

Instead, we know who votes in General Elections because in places where the population is older, turnout tends to be higher than in places where it is younger. Communities with more middle class and affluent constituents have higher turnouts than more deprived areas.      

The graphs below show the relationship between the socio-economic make up of a constituency’s population, with the proportion of people who turned out to vote at the last General Election. As can be seen, the higher the proportion of constituents who come from the most affluent AB social grades, the higher the turnout was in the constituency. On the other hand, turnout was lower the higher the proportion of a constituency’s population came from the least affluent DE social grades.

Now this all fits with expectation. But the rub comes when we run a similar exercise on the last mayoral election in 2012. If we look at the age profile of individual electoral wards, we would expect to see those with a higher proportion of older people have a higher level of turnout at the election. “Older people vote” after all.

But if we look at the data, a different picture emerges. The graph below shows all the wards in London, and the relationship between the proportion of people aged 55 and over in that ward, and the proportion of people who turned out to vote. And the picture is surprising but clear: there was almost no relationship between age and likelihood to vote at the last mayoral election. 

As the graph shows, there is a very slight incline upwards in the trend-line as the proportion of 55+ constituents increases, but the fit is very loose. The individual data points are scattered all over the place, far from the line and indicating an extremely weak relationship – if any at all (this wouldn’t pass a statistical test for the presence of a correlation).

The case is similar if we use with proportion of 18-34 years – or for that matter, the proportion of a ward’s population which owns their home. Despite some commentators suggesting homeowners are more likely to vote, the data suggest this is not the case at mayoral elections.

Another common trope is that “the doughnut may yet do it” for the Conservatives, with turnout being lower in inner London, where Labour does better, and higher turnout in the leafy suburbs therefore delivering victory for Zac Goldsmith. Again though, this claim does not really stand up to reality. If we look at average turnout in inner and outer London boroughs, it has not been noticeably higher in the outer ring of the doughnut since 2004. In fact, at the last mayoral election, average turnout was slightly higher in inner London boroughs than it was in outer London boroughs.

There is one final possibility, which has become a higher profile issue in the current contest than in the past: that there is a racial element in Londoners’ likelihood to vote. This is important because Zac currently leads Sadiq Khan by seven points among London’s white population, but is 31 points behind among BAME Londoners. If white Londoners were much more likely to vote therefore, there is an outside possibility that Zac Goldsmith could sneak a result.

Once again though, the data suggest this is not the case – there was very little relationship between a ward’s ethnic profile and its level of turnout at the last mayoral election. The predominantly white wards on the left hand side of the chart below include the wards with the highest turnout – but also most of the lowest. There is little to suggest that the predominantly BAME wards necessarily have a lower level of turnout than the London-wide average.

Overall then, there is little relationship between turnout at mayoral elections and age, home ownership, suburbia or ethnicity. It is within this context that much of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign, which has raised controversy in some areas, should be seen. Seeking to link Sadiq Khan to Islamic radicalism is not necessarily about trying to get people to change how they will vote, but more to provide an incentive for older voters in outer London to go out to the polling station and to drive up turnout among Conservative-leaning groups.

In turn, the hope is also to reduce the motivation to vote among Labour-leaning voters by creating an element of doubt in the back of the mind and to dampen enthusiasm (“Meh – I’m not sure I want him to be elected anyway”). The leaflets targeting Hindu and Sikh households are perhaps also similar examples of this - if not converting your opponent’s voters, at least reducing their affinity to him (or her).

Of course, it could also have the opposite effect. Rather than making Labour-leaning voters less likely to vote, Goldsmith’s campaign may have provided them with more of a reason to make the trip to the polling station, in order to stop a campaign they see as racially-charged and a threat to London’s status as a beacon of successful multiculturalism.  

Either way, if such tactics are to work, the Conservatives will need to overturn the turnout trends seen in 2012 to a very large extent. 

London is famously a city where relative wealth and deprivation sit closely alongside each other. Mews housing Georgian terraces meander into streets containing chicken shops, homeless refuges or council estates; Londoners of all backgrounds subscribe themselves to the same crush of the Tube at rush hour. For whatever reason, London also has not the stark variations in propensity to vote between different social groups seen in national elections. Turnout may hold the key for Goldsmith, but it would represent a rupture of historical trend, rather than an expression of it.