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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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.