Unkind cuts in Lancaster
Economics doesn’t come easy to most of us in Transition and to the general kindly Transition soul who cares for bees and the loss of biodiversity with a passion, the notion of the “cuts” doing harm to us, our friends and our neighbours is anathema.
But at the same point as most of us recoil from the perceived and feared effects of cutting public spending, I at least, must own up to a deep level of confusion about what is actually going on with our economy. I thought I was clear we were going to hell in a handcart and now everyone seems to be perking up and saying things are getting better, the economy is growing. Everyone? Well everyone who gets airtime in the media is talking about recovery.
David Noble, from the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (compiler of the recent services sector figure)s, said:
“After nearly six lost years of economic output, the UK economy looks to have really found its feet.”
And this based, so they say, on consistent growth over the last nine months.
Yet from my point of view this just isn’t the experience of most of us in one medium size town in NW England viz Lancaster. The last nine months have been a time of slow reduction in services, hugely worrying cuts in the pipeline and a sudden spike in the number of people who are falling into desperate straits and needing to use the food banks. The boarded up shops in the city centre are only reopening as yet more student flats, already major landmarks like the Storey Institute are struggling to remain in existence and the potholes from last winter are still unfixed on many suburban roads. One of the city secondary schools, Skerton High is in consultation about closure despite its acknowledged value for vulnerable children – the reason, cost of course. The Surestart centre across the road from Skerton is already implementing a cut in budget that means a real reduction in the provision for under 5s in an area of high deprivation.
This is depressing enough for the ordinary man and woman in the Lancaster street but as a city councillor I am one of those who face managing the government cuts to local authority spending. The authority has to save £3.5m over the next two years after the government cut by 15.3%, on top of a 27% cut since 2010. This means finding recurring savings of £1.2m from 2014/15, with a further £2.3m having to be found for 2015/16. You can argue all you like about who goes and what takes the hit but ultimately cuts of that size mean the loss of jobs. People we currently employ who do jobs we value – straightforward stuff like keeping the spread of knotweed under control on council land, deep cleaning the back alleys of our crowded city centre housing, being a PCSO on a troubled housing estate or a gardener in a city park, can just disappear under “efficiency savings” – represented by one figure in a huge list of figures that we as city councillors have to approve. Grants to arts projects like our theatre or to essential charitable and volunteer services like Citizen Advice or CVS have to be reviewed and for every dearly beloved amenity or project we keep, somehow another must be removed or reduced.
Last year the government required for the first time the collection of council tax from the poorest in our community .The government’s cut to the grant for council tax benefit would have resulted in the poorest-paid and unemployed couples in Lancaster district having to find £232 each year in council tax from April. Single people would have been £174 a year worse off. Instead, using money from the second homes tax and a government grant, meant we didn’t charge these residents council tax at all. This year and in coming years we can’t guarantee to support these people and they are some of our least well off. For those people who are on benefits, current budgets are often squeezed by the effect of the “bedroom tax”. Our Housing Department are keeping a close month by month eye on the effect the “bedroom tax” is having on the ability council house tenants have to pay their rent in full and on time. So far, with the help of discretionary payments, most people are managing. But underlying that are some worrying statistics from the food banks. Many more people seem to be ending up requesting emergency food when some small thing tips their household economy off balance. In effect they are paying their rent at the expense of eating.
Two years ago, economist Nicole Foss came to Lancaster to give a lecture to Transition City Lancaster. She stayed with me for a couple of days and obviously, the talk went on through breakfast, dinner and tea. One of the things she said stays with me.
"Plan for a future in which there will be 40%reduction in the current public sector budget – welfare, local government, schools health …"
It was inconceivable then but here we are, approaching that 40% cut in the city council funding, taxes on benefit users, a school threatened and hospital departments being reviewed and services scheduled to move elsewhere. It’s an unkind future, whatever the pundits say and the unkindest cut of all is that the weight of this reduction in funding is falling hugely and disproportionately on the lowest paid and most vulnerable in Lancaster society.
There’s a challenge for us in Transition here – I wonder how we will respond.
Photographs: Lancaster anti cuts demo (Lancaster Guardian), Skerton High against closure (Lancaster Guardian), Nicole Foss (Creative Commons)