Friday, 4 February 2011

Big Society- Frankly Mr Cameron you can shove it!

There are some people you warm to without even having even met them, and Joe Anderson, the leader of Liverpool City Council is, for me, one such person, because this week he told David Cameron where he could shove his ‘Big Society.’

Last year Liverpool was chosen as one of four areas in which the coalition’s big idea, some might say its only idea apart from cutting everything in sight, would be trialled ahead of a national roll out. The experiment has come to an early and undignified end because, as Mr Johnson pointed out in a letter to the PM, the cuts he was obliged to make were threatening the survival of the community groups that are the bedrock of the Big Society project.

In a letter written to Mr Cameron he asked ‘how can the city council support the big society and its aim to help do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of vital and worthwhile groups.’ The council he leads was, he concluded no longer able to support the big society because of the consequences of the cuts for which it is little more than a smokescreen.

The cuts Liverpool City Council has been told to make total £100million, in my own home town of Stoke-on-Trent the council has been instructed to slash £40million from its budget in the first year of the cuts alone; the amounts may be different, the consequences will be the same.

As a result of the budget cuts Stoke risks losing two swimming pools, one of which has provided a valuable resource to local disabled people for decades, and two libraries. All this despite well known social problems in relation to health outcomes and educational attainment; hang the consequences just balance the books. The local children’s centres, respite care for the disabled and Stoke Speaks out , an award winning programme to help children with speech problems, have been saved, but it is more of a temporary reprieve than a guaranteed long term future.

The city council in Stoke doesn’t have a leadership with fire in its belly; their response was to troop down to London to ask Eric Pickles politely if the city’s deep seated social problems could be taken into account when targets for cutting spending were set. Predictably Pickles, a man who looks like a fat workhouse beadle and has an attitude to match, sent them away with their collective tail between their legs.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council, led ironically by a coalition even more dodgy than the one in Westminster, will answer to the electorate in May, some prominent members will certainly lose their seats as a consequence of the spending cuts. That is par for the democratic course, in politics you have to take the brick-bats along with the bouquets. They shouldn’t be made to shoulder all of the blame though.

Yes there is a deficit crisis and yes Britain has to bring down its debts or risk the sort of problems faced by Greece and Ireland, but the pace at which the cuts are being made is manic and, as George Osborne freely admits, there is no plan B. So where does the Big Society come into all of this, at the very heart of the government’s dangerous agenda.

When the idea was first floated I, like most people, mocked it as the sort of blue skies nonsense parties in opposition talk about because it generates the maximum amount of media coverage for the minimum amount of effort. It is nothing of the sort; it is a dangerous and cynical plot.

Services that are vital to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in Britain today are being dismantled for reasons that have more to do with ideology than economics. Saying that people who are either struggling to hold onto their job or desperately trying to find another one whilst keeping a roof over their heads are going to step in and take over running the local library or swimming pool for free is wishful thinking.

Once upon a time David Cameron used to prattle away about ridding the Tory party of its ‘nasty’ image and letting sunlight win the day; now we know that was all an act. What he wants to do is drag public services back to the dark ages.

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