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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle