Faced with cuts, Newcastle is fighting for fairness

The leader of Newcastle City Council calls for more honesty and openness in local government funding.

This piece is a response to Andrew Hankinson's blog post, "Nick Forbes: Newcastle’s king of cuts"

Last 20 November was the day when the government’s austerity programme turned from a theoretical national debate into a stark reality for the people of Newcastle. £90m of council cuts over three years, affecting every aspect of public life across the city. I described it as one of the darkest days for public services in Newcastle.

Residents have been shocked. Protesters fighting the closure of 10 of our libraries have accused me of being a Tory poodle, doing the work of David Cameron in a concerted attack on local services. The fact that some of the cuts affected our local cultural institutions pushed us into the national press. I received letters signed by a who’s who of the geordie cultural diaspora: Sting, Bryan Ferry and Robson Green to name a few. Writer Lee Hall is turning a legitimate and welcome campaign against cuts to arts and culture into an increasingly personal campaign against me. The local Liberal Democrats join with Eric Pickles in accusing me of deliberately exaggerating the cuts in order to pass the blame onto government and of megaphone diplomacy. I have been likened to militant firebrand Derek Hatton, who famously defied the Thatcher government by setting an illegal budget. Earlier this month, in a blog post for the New Statesman, Andrew Hankinson leapt on that particular bandwagon, accusing me and the council’s director of finance of making deliberate arithmetic errors to overstate the scale of the cuts for political reasons.

All this talk of politically motivated over-statement of cuts is a ruse to hide the real scandal. The figures are right. They are the inevitable consequence of decisions made in Whitehall and Westminster, not in Newcastle Civic Centre. Newcastle has been honest about the scale of the cuts facing not just our city but communities across the country. And the cuts have been deliberately and systematically loaded  against those communities least able to withstand them.

Unlike most councils, we set our budget for three years instead of the usual one or two. We did this for good reasons. The old method of annually 'salami slicing' budgets was no longer adequate. We needed to take a good hard look at what the council does, and plan over the longer-term. A three year budget gives us more scope to make radical changes. And more time to work with communities and partner organisations to find alternative solutions to avoid closure of the most valued facilities and services, and more time to minimise job losses by helping staff to retrain or redeploy.

But creating a three year budget has been a fearsome task, because it’s exposed the enormity of the challenge facing the whole of local government. We were among the first councils to look in detail at the consequences through to 2016. Since we published our budget, other cities have issued very similar proposals. Liverpool has to save £173m by next year; Leeds, £51m next year; Manchester, £80m by 2015 and Birmingham, £600m by 2017. Councils have cut £5bn and shed 230,000 jobs over two years with some of the deepest cuts yet to come. We are not the only council that is considering closing libraries and cutting funds to the arts. The Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has gone even further in spelling out the consequences of cuts to 2020, by which time local government will have no money left to fund any services beyond its core statutory functions.

And what of the argument that I was exaggerating the cuts back in November? Just before Christmas the government announced a further round of cuts, and our £90m cuts requirement became £100m. So it turns out we were actually under - rather than over - stating the scale of the challenge.

And the greatest scandal of all lies in the judgments made in central government about where these cuts should fall hardest, and how they are hidden in a fog of complex and opaque adjustments and misinformation. The government is making systematic decisions to move the deepest cuts to areas with the highest levels of social and economic need. The five councils with the highest levels of multiple deprivation, on the government’s own figures, are the same five councils facing the highest levels of cuts. During the four years of the Spending Review, £1bn will have been transferred from the North to the South and East, with some inner London boroughs also amongst the worst affected. Millions more have been transferred to shore up the inefficient system of local government in two-tier shire counties.

We need a new approach to restore trust to this broken system. I have led the call for an independent approach to determining the allocation of local government budgets, accountable jointly to local and national government.

In the meantime, I will get on with the job of supporting and improving our city. I will resist the calls for my colleagues to set an illegal budget, to defy the government in the way that Liverpool did in the 1980s. I will maintain constructive relations with ministers, for example with Greg Clark on the delivery of our Newcastle City Deal, and Patrick McLoughlin about the need for investment in transport infrastructure. But what I cannot do is join in a conspiracy to hide the consequences of unfair and unsustainable cuts. I will be honest about the implications for our great city, open to alternative proposals, work day-in, day-out to preserve the services that people have a right to rely on, and continue to fight for a fairer future. I hope the government, too, can bring a bit of honesty into its own decisions.

Nick Forbes is the leader of Newcastle City Council

Nick Forbes is the leader of Newcastle City Council

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution