John Harris

Journalist & Author

Spending review 2010: living with the cuts

Tomorrow George Osborne will finally set out his plans to slash £83bn from government spending. John Harris talked to those who have already felt the sharp blade of the axe

Tomorrow afternoon, George Osborne will take to the floor of the House of Commons, and deliver the coalition’s comprehensive spending review (CSR), aiming to cut £83bn from government spending by 2015. So will end the strange, uneasy period during which cuts have tended to be talked about in the abstract, and politics has seen a kind of phoney war. “It’s the deficit, innit?” has become a national mantra; talk about belt-tightening and “tough decisions” has become almost banal. But on Wednesday, after those long weeks of tussling between government departments and the Treasury, we will start to get a picture of what such dramatic austerity will actually mean.

To some extent, we already know. Up and down the country, councils have been hacking back their budgets for more than 18 months, partly in preparation for a huge drop in the money they get from Whitehall. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have long been preparing for the impact of the cuts – and the first ministers of all three countries have signed a joint declaration against them. And let’s not forget: within weeks of taking office, the coalition made an initial round of decisions that set the tone. There was a start to the so-called bonfire of the quangos; help for asylum seekers and refugees was scaled down; Michael Gove tumbled into all that trouble with the cancellation of new school building projects.

Now, however, comes the really big stuff. No one – aside, perhaps, from the cloistered super-rich – will be unaffected. To mention only a handful of the scores of casualties seems a nonsense, but still: benefits, as we know, are in line for swingeing reductions; there are serious fears that tens of thousands of police officers will go; train fares will rise; house-building will shrink; libraries will close; care for disabled people will suffer; help for the arts will drop. The apparent munificence of the New Labour years will recede into the distance – and let’s not even talk about the distinct possibility of a double-dip recession.

Welcome to cuts-land, where some people have already been living for a while.

The respite service
Tadworth, Surrey

Emma Packham is 38. She is the single mother of 10-year-old twin boys – and nine-year-old Aaron, who is severely autistic. “Aaron dominates everything we do,” she says. “We can’t do anything spontaneous or impulsive. And he doesn’t sleep well, at all. He has two lots of medication: one lot to make him feel drowsy, to get him asleep, and a heavier sedative to keep him asleep. And he’s up between 5am and 6am every day, at the latest. Sometimes between 2am and 3am.”

Earlier this year, she received apparent good news from Tory-run Surrey county council. In addition to its funding for three hours a week of help at home, Aaron was eligible for a one-night-a-month stay at a new respite centre five miles from his home, called Applewood House. “Everything was brand spanking new. It had cost £1.8m: six purpose-built bedrooms, all with en suite . . . and I liked the ethos of the place. The staff were all dedicated and committed.”

Emma was so impressed, in fact, that she decided to use her existing care funding to pay for another 10 nights of respite care a year, so as to further acquaint Aaron with a world outside home and school, and allow her and the twins the odd small break.

Unfortunately, that prospect soon vanished. “Suddenly it all went quiet. In March, we had a family gathering that wouldn’t be appropriate for Aaron, and I rang them, and I said: ‘I know you’re opening around Easter – is there any chance Aaron can come to you on Easter Sunday?’ They said: ‘Actually, I’m afraid we’ve got bad news. Everything’s been put on hold. We don’t think we’re opening.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Such was the outcome of a drive to make up a £6m deficit in Surrey’s children’s services budget, save £180m across all the council’s spending in four years, and prepare Surrey for a drastic drop in the cash it gets from Whitehall.

Applewood House’s newly finished bedrooms are still empty – while 25 miles away in Woking, another respite centre has had its bed numbers cut from 20 to 10. Thus far, all this has only been explained using impenetrable official boilerplate, as evidenced by one of the many letters Emma has received from the council. She quotes me a typical passage: “It has been decided to undertake a review of our provision of residential short breaks across Surrey, and ensure these services are used to maximum capacity and are meeting needs appropriately.”

“I feel like the rug’s been pulled from beneath me,” she says. “We have a need; I’m not laying it on. And although it was only going to be one or two nights a month, I think it would have had an enormous benefit to the rest of the family – just having that day on the calendar to look forward to. If you get a week when you’ve been up at three, three mornings in a row, you can imagine: ‘Roll on Friday, when at least I know he’s going to be in good hands at Applewood, and I can get some sleep.’”

In the midst of the new austerity, talking about its disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable people has become a cliche – but as the Applewood case proves, that doesn’t make it any less true. Similar stories are starting to pop up around the country: in Bedford, for example, there have been noisy protests about the council’s decision to close a similar children’s respite centre as part of a £10m cuts programme, which means it has suddenly become “unsustainable”.

Towards the end of our conversation, Emma reads out a letter she recently got from Disability Challengers, a charity that runs a play scheme that Aaron uses most Saturdays: “You may understand that Disability Challengers is facing a double funding problem, with the impending cuts from national and local governments, at a time when financial uncertainty means voluntary donations from individuals and the community are declining rapidly.” In every word she says, there’s a very understandable dread.

The theatre company
Abergavenny, Gwent

Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and David Hockney have put their names to a letter of protest. The bosses of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Sadler’s Wells have also weighed in. Now, what we have long known as “the arts community” awaits the CSR with knuckle-chewing anxiety, while the government signals cuts of at least 25% and tells them to be even nicer to corporate sponsors and private donors.

In Wales, a big arts shakedown has already happened. In June, to howls of dismay, Arts Council Wales announced that it was cutting its list of “revenue-funded organisations” by a third. Its chairman, Dai Smith, did his best to shrug off the idea that this was a pre-emptive decision related to the looming spending squeeze, but he was not convincing. “We’re not naive,” he said. “Wales will have to make cuts in public spending, and the assembly government will have its own choices to make about its funding priorities.” The move, he said, was “about using taxpayer’s money well”.

Among those hit were the Hay festival, an array of theatres and venues across Wales, and the Gwent Theatre, a touring company that has brought drama to schools in some of Wales’s most deprived areas since 1976, and had its £250,000 annual contribution cut to zero.

It has a staff of six, and employs scores of freelance actors, designers and writers, who have contributed dozens of original works to the theatre’s history. Each year, the company’s productions play to around 20,000 children and young people. Any time now, all this will come to an end.

Its creative director, 64-year-old Gary Meredith, has been part of the Gwent Theatre from the start. “On the 19 June,” he recalls, “we received a very long letter, which said we were no longer going to be included among revenue-receiving organisations. It was very difficult to understand their reasoning – in fact, there doesn’t seem to be any reasoning at all. We had a lot of paper, but no information. What I find bewildering is that they’ve chosen to cut a successful, well-loved, thriving arts organisation.”

The Gwent Theatre was not alone: the Welsh Arts Council also axed its grants for two other touring companies, based in the valleys and the huge county of Powys. “I think the suggestion is that if they want to experience the theatre, children and young people from those places can get on a bus and go to Cardiff. But given that about 80% of the children in the areas we serve are on free school meals, I don’t think that’s going to be high on their list of priorities. And that’s the thing: decisions like this do incredible damage to places that have some of the highest levels of social deprivation in Europe. Children and young people in these areas have got very little to begin with, and now even that will be taken away from them.”

Might he somehow get some money from private sponsors? “I don’t play golf with captains of industry, unfortunately,” he says, grimly. “And anyway, I think finding a quarter of million pounds every year would be pretty much impossible.”

Meredith plays down questions about what’s going to happen to him but eventually gives some kind of answer. “I still act,” he says, “and that’s what I’m trained to do. So I suppose I’m going to have to see if there’s work out there for an ageing, bald Welsh actor.”

The quango
Coventry, Warwickshire

Quango, for anyone unfamiliar with the coalition’s pet hate, stands for “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation”. As the Financial Times recently pointed out, there are “few easier ways to win the approbation of tabloid newspapers or the applause of a rightwing meeting” than to attack a few – or, come to think of it, kill a couple of hundred, as the government did last week. “The very name is constructed to invite derision.”

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency – or Becta – might seem a case in point. Tucked away in a science park, it is housed in one of those buildings that evoke the more hi-tech end of David Brent-world. Its website suggests an operation in which a weird corporate-speak might have all but taken over: “Digital technology comes into its own in pedagogical terms not by replicating pre-existing forms and processes,” runs one contribution, “but by utilising the strengths and attributes that make new media forms distinct and different to established methodologies.”

Less than two weeks after the coalition took power, Becta was among the first to be readied for abolition, which would supposedly save £65m a year. At the time, the move was barely noticed – but since then, people have questioned whether it was the right thing to do. Retail tycoon Philip Green’s recent report about government waste has hardly helped: his basic point was that government was lousy at deal-making with the suppliers of everything from coffee to computers, but Becta apparently represents a shining exception.

Its most important role is simple: if a school or college wants to buy any new IT, Becta will look at its requirements and come up with a list of providers who meet the criteria. The buyers can then make their decision on the basis of budgets and cost-effectiveness – instead of, say, worrying about whether they have got the right spreadsheets to go with their email application.

Adrian Higginbotham, 36, is Becta’s “leading edge research manager”, and an activist in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). “We found out what was happening on the 24 May, which was a Monday,” he says. “There had been a lot of speculation about us on the news that weekend, so people turned up for work knowing something was going on. Two hundred people were called into a meeting at 10 o’clock that morning, at the same time as the schools department was putting up a press release on its website saying we were closing. We didn’t have any more information than that.” The staff, he says, had expected to be downsized rather than axed completely, and perhaps allowed an official review of what they do: instead, the closure hit them as a fait accompli.

According to the government, Becta’s key work will be folded into the Department for Education, but Higginbotham has concerns. He worries about safeguarding kids from the darker aspects of technology, a big part of Becta’s work. He also mentions special educational needs, and points out that there is no other body whose brief includes making sure technology helps disabled people in education.

It looks as if around 75% of Becta’s 200-strong workforce will face redundancy, and in Coventry, that’s an all-too familiar story. The nearby Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority is also facing the chop. The fate of the Coventry-based Young People’s Learning Agency is under consideration. Across the city, in fact, more than 1,000 quango jobs could be lost, which isn’t great news for the local economy. “It’s a lot of jobs,” says Higginbotham, who is facing redundancy himself. “And a lot of worried people.”

The library
Bruton, Somerset

The compact town of Bruton does not look like a place that is feeling the pinch. Its population is apparently split between creative bohemians and moneyed green-welly-ites. Two out of three of its secondary schools are private.

But all is not as it should be. The branch of HSBC closed earlier this year. The post office is for sale, with reportedly no takers. Most miserably of all, the library – a central feature of local life for almost 100 years – is under grave threat.

In September, as part of a drive to plug a predicted £75m deficit and cut 1,500 jobs, Tory-run Somerset county council announced the library was to close, pending a final decision on its future, pegged to the decisive fall-out from the CSR. Since then, a one-off donation of £3,000 has kept the library open on Fridays, but the money will run out at Christmas. After that, no one knows what will happen.

This is a familiar story: as proved by closures in such places as Lewisham, Wirral, Nottingham and Swindon, when public finances get tight, it’s library services that are often first hit. Here, the woman leading the charge against closure is 62-year-old Anna Groskop, a local Conservative councillor. I meet her and library trustee Colin Hasleup on the high street, and they talk me through the place’s past, and possible future: its opening in 1913, thanks to a trust set up by the daughter of a local silk-making dynasty; the eventual cutting of its hours to two half-days and a single day a week; a recent survey suggesting the library was still used by 80% of local children; and Groskop’s still-evolving plan whereby it might be rescued via private philanthropy and local volunteering.

Once inside, you get an instant sense of what could be lost. There’s the obligatory noticeboard crammed with future local events, wooden boxes full of children’s books, the standard-issue knee-burning municipal carpet, five computers, and a sizeable reference section. Here, surely, is the very essence of what some people call a “community hub”.

“One of my first phone calls,” says Groskop, “was from a 90-year-old gentleman who said: ‘I can’t get outside of Bruton if I want access to books, and my social life is about coming to the library, reading the paper, exchanging my books, and meeting my friends.’ He said: ‘This is one of the worst things that ever happened.’ He was heartbroken about it.” He’s not alone: in the town’s health food shop, I meet 38-year-old Sonia Laue, who uses the library with her six-year-old son, and considers the mooted closure “unbelievable”. She doesn’t drive: she says that if the worst happens, the prohibitively expensive cost of local bus fares means they might stop visiting libraries altogether.

One question springs to mind: as a Conservative councillor in a Conservative-run county, at the blunt end of a cuts programme pursued by a Conservative-led government, how does Groskop feel? “I don’t feel it puts me in a difficult position,” she says. “I’m responsible for the community that I represent.” When it comes to the austerity drive, she says she generally approves of what is being done, but hopes that her work might mean the library is spared: having hired two librarians and 20-plus volunteers, she’s now hoping to find benefactors who can somehow help her override this small aspect of national austerity. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that someone, somewhere cares enough about our community that they’ll help us,” she says. “There are ways round this.”

It sounds, I suggest, as if she might be at the cutting edge of what David Cameron calls the “big society”, whereupon she shoots me a look that could kill. “It’s nothing to do with the big society. I’ve never thought of it like that, and I never will. I think the big society puts people off, like all those soundbite things. This is about caring about your community, and what will happen to it in the future.”

The refugee centre
Sheffield, Yorkshire

“The reason they’re picking on the migration sector is because people aren’t going to scream as much as when other public services are cut. We’re a very easy target,” says Jim Steinke, 56, the chief executive of the Northern Refugee Centre (NRC) – responsible for work over a huge swath of the north of England.

It helps asylum seekers, approved refugees, and economic migrants, and aims to ease their integration into the places where they have arrived. Its casebook, he tells me, “matches global tensions. At the moment, there are still a number of Iraqis, a number of Afghanis, Congolese, Sudanese, Ugandans, and increasing numbers from Iran, Pakistan and China.”

Early this year, the staff at the centre knew they were in the frame for cuts, no matter who won the election – but in June, everything became clear. Putting together cuts imposed by the UK Border Agency and Eric Pickles of the communities and local government department, NRC was going to lose £300,000 out of a budget of £1m. Worse still, the cold economic climate meant additional losses – from charitable donations – of another £200,000, and Steinke also has fears about the knock-on effects of the CSR, when local councils begin to hack down help to organisations such as his. The centre has 42 staff: he has already sent out 21 “at risk” letters, but hopes to keep redundancies to around 15.

Obviously, this will still be bad news. Already, the cuts have had drastic effects on the centre’s mentoring programmes, whereby recently arrived people are given one-on-one help. He fears for such brass-tacks stuff as funding for childcare: “Ensuring that people aren’t doing asylum interviews with four kids round their feet.” Perhaps most alarmingly of all, he is already having to cut back on help aimed specifically at women: “Basically, we are now providing far less support to women who have been traumatised – by relocation, or sexual exploitation, including trafficking.”

He tells me about Sheffield’s Gleadless Valley estate, once “the racial incidents capital of the north”, where his staff have been helping to organise so-called conversation clubs. “That’s broken down so many barriers,” he says. “It’s an informal place where people can come to meet other people – either from their own community, or different migrant communities, or the host community. There’s basic tea and sympathy, conversation around tables. It eases people in and gives them an insight into what makes British society tick.”

The day we talk, he is getting ready for a half-hour meeting with Nick Clegg, whose constituency, in Sheffield’s upmarket outskirts, is only a few miles away. “It’s important that we use what means we have,” he says. “We’ve got quite a good dossier of all the statements the Lib Dems have made, prior to the coalition government. And I’ve got to say: on a personal level, he has always been very supportive.”

There’s a pause. “But I appreciate how different things are now, obviously.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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