Braving the storm: Liverpool town hall. Photo: Getty
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Cutting council funds: the government's ill-conceived rebalancing act

The government's local authority cuts will inhibit growth in the regions, rather than building a "northern powerhouse".

Imagine if the Ministry of Defence was forced to scrap one of its three major services. Would ministers choose to do without the RAF, the navy or the army? This is the type of impossible choice councils have faced as they have lost, on average, a third of their budgets since 2010.

Austerity has bitten hard and although local authorities have stepped up to the mark – innovating wherever possible to avoid losing valued services – the impact has been obvious enough. The pain has been felt by all non-ring-fenced areas of spending: libraries, home helps, roads, parks, playgrounds, waste collections and major events.

In Liverpool, we have lost 58 per cent of our budget. By 2017, we will have reduced our spending by £330m. These are not merely numbers on a spreadsheet. These cuts translate into fewer jobs (2,200 and counting), less investment and reduced spending power in our local economy. Yesterday’s local government financial settlement leaves Liverpool facing  a further 5.9 per cent cut to our budget – three times the national average of 1.8 per cent.

But the cuts we have undergone – and are set to endure for the foreseeable future – undermine what is claimed to be another key ministerial priority: rebalancing our local and regional economies away from an over-reliance on public money through developing a vibrant private sector.

We’re playing our part. We have had success over the past year in attracting large private sector employers like H2 EnergyAmey, BT, TNT Postand Seadrill to relocate here, creating 1,500 jobs. Meanwhile, the recent International Festival for Business in Liverpool has led to deals that will create around 10,000 jobs in the city-region over the next three years.

So, it could be argued, if we have had this success why do we need more funding from the government? It is not only because it is increasingly a struggle to provide vital statutory services like social care, but money lost through cuts to our Whitehall grants (which accounts for four-fifths of councils’ finance) stymies local growth and investment too. This makes it harder for cities like Liverpool to diversify our economic base, provide more and better job opportunities and build-in greater resilience to protect our economy in the bad times.

George Osborne says he wants a “Northern powerhouse” acting as a counterweight to London and the southeast. Nick Clegg says he wants rebalancing too, claiming, earlier this month, that capital investment for the government’s “roads revolution” will do just that. But the same logic about the importance of public investment in driving growth, escapes them when it comes to local authority spending.

Rebalancing our economy is something we all agree on. But if ministers are really serious about driving growth in the regions, then they need to understand that taking money out of our local economies through endless cuts to council budgets slows this process and, perversely, makes us even more reliant on public spending.

Joe Anderson is Mayor of Liverpool

Joe Anderson is Mayor of Liverpool. 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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