Anyone still clinging on to the idea that austerity is a prudent economic choice will soon need to look no further than the bottom of their road – and their uncollected rubbish bin.
Over the past few years, central government has been able to get away with what is no less than daylight robbery of council funds. When cuts begin by pulling services primarily relied on by society’s more vulnerable and marginalised people, they can, it seems, be carried out with conveniently little fuss.
Now, though, the cuts are hitting services we can all see.
While councils have long been aware of the strain of central government cuts, the situation is now so dire that independent thinktank the Institute for Government (IfG) has teamed up with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy to identify five public services – hospitals, adult social care, police, prisons and schools – that it sees at breaking point, and to warn that the UK faces a combination of failing public services and breached spending controls unless urgent action is taken.
This adds to last week’s warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) that councils will soon need to make deep cuts to essential services. This will include anything from road repairs, parks, children’s centres, waste collection, leisure centres and libraries.
A third of local authorities expect their parks to decline in the next three years. But the fact is that as far back as 2010, services from meals on wheels to debt advice centres have been sacrificed – and a climate has slowly built that opened the door to where we are now.
It is telling that when the LGA warns of even more impending cuts, it speaks of needing to “divert” money currently allocated for maintaining parks or running children’s centres to adult social care. This sort of “one or the other” dilemma is exactly what central government is counting on.
In Liverpool, on top of the £330m in existing cuts, there is now another £90m to come. That means closed day centres and nurseries, sold-off civic heritage of land and buildings, and boarded-up libraries – if current closures go ahead it will mean the city will have lost more than half its libraries in the past two years.
That story is repeated anywhere from Birmingham, where residents have pressed the council to U-turn after cuts threatened nine museums and art centres, to Haringey, which has just run a consultation on cuts that include axing its recycling centre and cutting waste collection.
Abysmal enough, but that such things are termed “essential services”, as though others are non-essential, says more about the political climate around austerity than we may want to admit.
“Essential services” in this country have actually been eroding for years. Local authority funding to help vulnerable people avoid homelessness was cut by 45% between 2009-10 and 2014-15. Families of children with disabilities widely can’t access specialist local council help, leaving them without personal assistants, overnight support services and respite care. And 1.2 million people aged 65 and over who need support to eat, dress, or wash are not getting that help. Welfare rights and law centres have been closing since 2010 when some councils first cut funding, leaving areas completely without legal advice for people on low incomes.
We are entering not so much a new era of cuts to essential services than an era of cuts to essential services that the wider public care about. The uncomfortable truth is that the only difference between, say, a green bin and a homeless shelter is that the homeless shelter is not “essential” to all of us.
This two-tier version of austerity is only exacerbated by the fact reforms to local government funding mean councils in poorer areas have had to cut back local services 10 times as much as in more affluent areas. Even something like park cuts will likely end up disproportionately hitting poorer areas.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, post-Brexit, austerity will be extended until the mid-2020s, with cuts to day-to-day public service spending due to accelerate over the next parliament.
Crucially, this will not only fall on areas traditionally associated with austerity – say, housing benefit – but a whole range of public services used by everyone, of every class. We might call this the “staggering” of austerity: where services primarily used by the homeless, disabled and older people, and vulnerable children, are first to be deeply cut, and then the rest start to go.
The uncomfortable truth: UK government cuts have happened under our noses – The Guardian