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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear