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

GETTY
Show Hide image

Whatever Arlene Foster did, at least no one died

After all, Northern Irish voters forgave Martin McGuiness his spell in the IRA. Plus: why did Boris Johnson get a pass on Brexit bungling?

What was Sir Ivan Rogers trying to tell us when he referred to “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” in his letter of resignation from the EU ambassadorship? According to “friends” quoted in the Times – which almost certainly means Rogers himself – he thinks that Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, were guilty of a “failure to understand briefings”. Put more crudely, he thinks the two Brexiteers are a bit thick.

I do not like the political positions of either Fox or Davis. But I note that both have science-based first degrees from universities other than Oxbridge (Fox studied medicine at Glasgow; Davis took molecular and computer sciences at Warwick). Both were also brought up in council houses. The third leading cabinet Brexiteer, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian raised on a large family farm on Exmoor, is, like Rogers, a Balliol arts graduate. He is apparently excluded from complaints about brain capacity. I wonder why.

 

The Cummings man

Rogers is not the first to question Fox’s grasp of the issues. Vince Cable said in September: “He doesn’t understand what a customs union is.” If so, he is not alone, according to Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign. In a 20,000-word blog that purports to explain the referendum result, Cummings states: “I am not aware of a single MP or political journalist who understands the single market – its history, its nature, its dynamics, its legal system . . . Cameron, Osborne and Clegg certainly don’t. Neither does Bill Cash [the veteran Tory Eurosceptic]. Neither does any head of the CBI. Neither do Jon Snow, Robert Peston, Evan Davis or John Humphreys [sic] so they do a rubbish job of exposing politicians’ ignorance.”

Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, offers no evidence of his own grasp of the subject. But since his rambling screed cites, among others, the 19th-century German chancellor Bismarck, the American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the 18th-century English statistician Thomas Bayes, I suppose we must take his erudition on all matters for granted.

 

Cash for ash

After the First World War, Winston Churchill observed, “The whole map of Europe has been changed . . . but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” Now, as we grapple with Brexit, Northern Ireland’s troubles return in the contemporary form of renewable heating subsidies overpaid to businesses and farms, some of them no doubt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and nearly all (one guesses) to members of the Loyalist community. The subsidies, overseen in an earlier ministerial position by Arlene Foster, the Unionist first minister, have led Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Foster’s deputy in the power-sharing executive, to resign, threatening the survival of the province’s eternally uneasy peace.

McGuinness argues that Foster should stand down pending an inquiry. Perhaps he is right. But whatever Foster did or didn’t do, nobody died. Which is more than can be said of McGuinness’s spell as an IRA commander, into which no inquiry was held.

 

Firm smack of regulation

The trouble with trying to create a sensible system of press regulation, which ministers are still struggling to do, is that somebody must finance it. In my view, neither government nor newspapers can be trusted as paymasters likely to respect the regulator’s independence.

Perhaps some charitable foundation or private individual with no axes to grind could be persuaded to step into the breach. But, no, the only available source of finance is Max Mosley, the ex-head of Formula One motor racing. Through family charities, he bankrolls Impress, the sole regulator recognised under legislation passed after the hacking scandal.

It is hard to imagine a less suitable paymaster. He is the younger son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader in whose Union Movement he was once actively involved. More recently, he sued the now-defunct News of the World for breach of privacy in reporting his involvement in a sadomasochistic sex orgy. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination can he be described as a disinterested party. Following the News of the World case, Mosley tried to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the law should require newspapers to give advance notification of their intention to expose private matters. The “victims” could then, if so minded, seek pre-publication injunctions.

This form of censorship was denounced by Milton in the 17th century. Mosley has no grasp of the most fundamental principles of press freedom and fair regulation.

 

A poor prognosis

A bad Christmas and New Year for the Wilby family, with all of us suffering colds/chest infections/flu/bronchitis/pneumonia (delete according to dramatic preference). But at least we didn’t have to risk treatment in an NHS hospital, encountering what the British Red Cross rather fancifully calls “a humanitarian crisis”. Of our two nearest hospitals, one is in special measures, while the other didn’t have a single spare bed from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve.

The Labour Party came to office in 1997 determined that the NHS should provide standards of choice and personal attention as good as in the private sector. Only thus, its leaders reckoned, could middle-class support for the service and willingness to pay the necessary taxes be maintained. The Conservatives’ goal is the opposite: to reduce the NHS to a condition in which the middle classes abandon it, leaving a rump service for the poor. Taxes can then be cut, with the affluent needing the money for private insurance. The Tories are well on the way to success.

 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge