You probably don’t remember David Cameron launching his ‘Big Society’ plan in 2010. I don’t particularly, but somehow it came back to me as I heard the news that Northamptonshire council had collapsed, with Birmingham to follow suit. Cameron’s vision in his successful 2010 campaign was to reinvigorate British communities.
He spoke of people being ‘free and powerful enough to help themselves’ in an almost revolutionary manner. He wanted tribes of volunteers to run libraries and museums. He wanted villagers to buy out pubs and run them freely. This strategic plan may have worked for Cameron’s electoral success, but it was indicative of a Conservative government that went on to neglect local communities.
The former Prime Minister’s team were intelligent enough to spin the policy as the start of true liberty and freedom in the UK. In stark terms, Cameron was maintaining the old Conservative scorn for the ‘nanny state’ and planning to leave councils and communities with limited funding and resources to facilitate austerity.
Theresa May has meekly followed her predecessor in trying to rid the burden of the most important services in our country – substance misuse services, youth social care and mental health support. Perhaps May has a better excuse, after all, Brexit and Russian espionage are quite time-consuming. However, she is genuinely failing to provide a duty of care for the general public.
The Conservative government have a systemic issue of political carelessness. They have offloaded new responsibilities onto councils including further provision of adult social care and social security, all whilst reducing the grants that fund the services.
Such an action is illogical and neglectful. Even with a hike in council tax and business rates, local taxes alone do not have the spending power to run a community. That is what a council is, the hub of the local community, despite how grey-faced the counsellors and their buildings appear to be.
Undeniably the most scandalous consequence of the ‘funding abyss’ is the cuts that have forced councils to significantly reduce temporary accommodation provision and support for children in care.
By 2020, the Conservative government expect every council to be ‘self-financed’, as they plan to revoke all central government funding. Martin Rawlinson, Labour councillor in Preston, told the Financial Times in July 2017, ‘Without the reserves we would be bankrupt. We only have £6m left, that’ll be gone in two years’.
In March of this year, the National Audit Office suggested that if councils keep drilling into their reserves, one in ten will be exhausted in three years’ time. 15 are currently at severe risk of collapse. This isn’t a slight knock of funding – it is a matter of absolute bankruptcy.
The families that will suffer from lack of medical professionals or psychological help are an immediate consequence. The long-term outcome could be just as important. The blueprint of a cohesive community are the services I took for granted as a child. Safe and maintained parks, libraries and playgrounds facilitate friendship, knowledge and communal respect. The local grassroots football team, parents’ coffee meeting, after school play date all allow for a social camaraderie.
The maintenance of these provisions are absolutely integral to the quality of life for every member of society. The local library book scheme was the highlight of my summer during my first years at school. I have a distinct sadness to think other children are unlikely to enjoy the security of community as I did.
David Cameron had no idea of the importance of society in his 2010 speech. He used the most integral services in the country as political pawns. Theresa May’s neglect is equally tragic. It’s time journalists, political commentators and politicians take some time away from Barnier’s negotiating table.
The silent crisis within our councils must be solved by urgent funding and a reversal of the policy to abolish central government funding. Otherwise, we suffer a tragedy as families sacrifice themselves for the sake of austerity and local communities become faceless. The ‘people’ can’t be free and powerful without money. Cameron should have known that.