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It’s time to rebuild communities with greater local control

Less than two years into the current spending review’s implementation and with only a fraction of the public expenditure cuts it created actually made, we are witnessing hardship and despair in some communities across the country. More cuts are to come and not all of them have yet been identified by central or local government, the NHS and other public bodies. The government has announced its intention to find a further £10bn of cuts to welfare benefits over the next two years. It has also signalled that it will be seeking significant further cuts to public expenditure in the 2013 spending review.

As the national economy continues in recession and government revenues fall short of the treasury’s targets national borrowing is increasing and the prospect of severe cuts over the next few years grows more likely by the day.

Ministers are not willing to accept that their ‘Plan A’ is not doing as well as they had hoped for back in 2010. Instead they have recommitted themselves to a deep and fast deficit reduction. Thankfully there are some limited initiatives to stimulate economic activity through infrastructure investment but many economists feel that much more is required to stimulate growth.

It is easy to talk about the deficit in the abstract as much as it is easy to talk about the billions of pounds that will be have to cut to achieve government financial targets. It is certainly less easy to be a recipient of cuts to key public services or welfare benefits. Many of the cuts already made at a national and local level are causing great damage to families and communities. Some will lead to further pressures on other public services. Many will undermine long terms programmes to address inequality of opportunity and attainment – such as Sure Start and the Education Maintenance Allowance.

Every week another report is published on the impact of the cuts and the resultant hardship for individuals and communities.

Strong resilient communities supported by strong and financially viable voluntary and community organisations are required at this time of recession and austerity as never before. There is a serious risk that we are travelling in the opposite direction. This is not the time to stigmatise those in need or to write off whole communities. This would undermine social cohesion and social justice.

It is essential that commentary and analysis of the cuts and the current raft of policies to change benefit and employment programmes are not over statistical and technocratic – they should use real examples and describe what is happening to people – often some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Many communities and neighbourhoods are under pressure. Voluntary and community groups – both formal and informal – are under pressure too. Public sector financial support has often been reduced or withdrawn as local authorities and other public bodies seek to balance their books. Community and charity groups are having to make hard decisions about how they use scarce resources; what to prioritise; whether to subsidise a service or activity that would previously have been fully funded by the state; and whether to step in a replace services that the state is withdrawing support for; and often which of their own staff to make redundant.

And where there is still public sector financial support for such groups they are finding that the switch from grants to contracts is giving them less opportunity to be flexible and responsive to local needs and local choices. This is not an easy time for the local voluntary and community sector any more than it is for the public sector and larger national charities, and many private sector companies.

Rightly the government is aiming to spend on prevention and seeking the dual benefit of reducing reliance on welfare and public services while at the same reducing long term expenditure. However, this requires either new money or the diversion of monies that would otherwise fund public services. There will be opportunities to attract social investment from the private sector, charitable foundations and high wealth individuals but without public funding these initiatives will be challenging.

Also rightly the government’s ambition is to reduce the number of families who have to rely on benefits. Of course, we need a sense of ‘a hand up’ rather than ‘a hand down’. We want more people in decent jobs earning at least the living wage rather than in minimum wage jobs and having to claim the diminishing tax credit. There is a need to revisit the Work Programme to ensure that it meets the needs of those furthest from employment and to address people’s needs holistically. However, without growth there will not be the jobs to employ people so growth is essential for economic and social reasons.

This article is not the rant of a ‘deficit denier’. Over time and when and as the economic conditions are right the deficit has to be reduced but the issue is how and when to achieve this. No government can avoid making cuts but the issue is where and when to swing the axe. There is a need to redirect expenditure too. There will have to be some hard, painful and unpleasant choices. However, one has to ask why there is so much emphasis on cuts and rather less on a more progressive tax system and a different choice of the balance between them.

The UK has to be competitive in global markets. It needs entrepreneurs and successful business. It requires efficient and effective public services – as do businesses. It remains the seventh richest economy in the world yet recent reports have produced evidence that as poverty increases many people are as fearful of falling into long term poverty as they were a century ago.

Is this what we want in 2012? Surely not.

This is the time to rebuild communities – socially, economically and physically – with greater local control as a means of securing growth and for this to be accompanied by more progressive redistribution between communities and individuals. It will require public, voluntary and business partnerships and public investment. This approach may not be a panacea but it could make a positive contribution.

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Chris Wade
Chris Wade
11 years ago

John, I agree entirely with your argument although my perspective is largely from experience working with small and rural towns. However, I think language used is telling and important: Time to ‘rebuild communities’ or ‘communities rebuild themselves’ (accepting all those warm facilitation words as read, of course!). Is that a fair critique in a metropolitan context or unrealistic in any scenario, do you think? I am open to debate too!

Chris (aka @man_about_towns)

john tizard
john tizard
11 years ago

Chris.

Good point but the key is that government and wider public sector have to recognise impact of cuts on communities – especially poor communities – and should take action to invest to enable these communities to build capacity.

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