Front-line services

Central government’s ideologically driven austerity is coming home to roost, locally and across the country. Local government has been undermined by year-on-year cuts to the central government grant, with a roughly 40 percent reduction in budgets in real terms over the last six years.

This means cuts to front-line services, which typically impact the most vulnerable people in our communities. In Kent, this is clear from, for instance, the reduction in drug and alcohol services, reflected in the loss of the Folkestone centre (the nearest for anyone wanting to take the first step to tackling their addiction are Dover and Ashford). Youth services and children’s centres have also seen cuts, while the cuts and changes to welfare have had a devastating affect on lives, of late through the fundamentally flawed roll-out of universal credit. Adult and children’s services are at crisis point, taking up ever more of the county council’s shrinking budget. Schools budgets have been cut so too, for all the central government rhetoric, budgets for mental health.

These are services that should act as a safety-net in a caring, humane society. And yet they are being dismantled.

The same is true of housing, with the steep reduction in social housing and the inability of councils to build more. It is no surprise that homelessness is on the rise.

These are false cuts – the impact on society and on other services is clear. Social care, for instance, is intrinsically linked to the National Health Service and is part of the overall crisis. If there are not enough social workers, care workers and residential and home facilities, then this means people end up staying in hospital because they cannot be safely allowed back to their homes or into residential care.

Meanwhile, many of those who are left to pick up the pieces, particularly the not-for-profit sector, are experiencing ever less central and local government funding, at a time of rising demand. Grants are cut, contract values are reduced, providers are asked to do more for less.

This all has an impact as well on infrastructure. The state of our roads and pavements is something experienced by everyone on a daily basis. It is highly questionable whether Kent County Council is able to fulfil its statutory obligation to provide safe roads. Ever more of the network is in a poor or very poor state.

For council staff, the impact has been relentless. Many have lost their jobs, many others have this threat hanging over them almost all the time. Restructure has followed restructure and, as our Kent County Councillor, Martin Whybrow has observed, staff morale seems to have taken a particular nose-dive in the last year or so – hardly surprising given there is no end in sight to the pain. Those that can are leaving to join the private sector, with a resultant drain of highly experienced staff.

The situation has resulted in the first county council, Tory-led Northamptonshire, going bust. Other county, district, borough and city councils have dwindling reserves, with several large counties and cities looking to now be in a perilous position. Northamptonshire will not be a one-off. Everything gets cut back until councils end up doing nothing other than the statutory minimum.

There is no reason for this other than central government policy. Local government is treated with disdain and there seems a clear disconnect between reality for some MPs, including our own, who publicly blame local government for cuts, without understanding or at least admitting that this is deliberate Tory policy.