George Osborne’s austerity gutted local councils to shrink the state – don’t forget

Tories would rather people die on the street than pursue social justice


It is now clear that the austerity programme of former chancellor George Osborne failed even its own terms as a means of returning the UK’s budget to surplus.

What is often forgotten, though, is that Osborne’s austerity approach was modelled on a now largely forgotten (and failed) experiment by the Canadian government in the 1990s.

This experiment loaded public spending cuts on to its local government for political reasons to deflect blame from central government for painful local decisions.

Unsurprisingly then, local authorities in the UK saw some of the largest proportional cuts in their spending during Osborne’s stewardship of the economy. And this is continuing. A Financial Times analysis summarises:

“…council spending over the past five years has revealed that local government services are creaking under the weight of growing demand as local authority budgets have been cut by £18bn in real terms since 2010 — with at least another £9.5bn expected by the end of the decade.

This is equivalent to a fifth of spending by England’s 300-plus local authorities, whose budget for running services, from social care to road sweeping, has been reduced at twice the rate of cuts to UK public spending as a whole.”

These cuts to local services continue unabated despite a de facto admission that austerity hasn’t worked and that the most vulnerable people are bearing the brunt of cuts.

Harrowing decisions are having to be made by Birmingham City Council, for example, which has just announced that services to homeless people and for domestic violence will lose £10 million over the next two years just days after a rough sleeper died of cold in the city centre.

Birmingham has already made £800 million of savings because of loss of central government funding and has halved its staff to 12,500.

The effects of years of local government cuts were described by Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers in a recent interview with the Guardian.

Only the ‘super-deprived’ were now being supported with ongoing cuts deadly serious for many vulnerable people. He said that:

“We are fast reaching the point where there could be catastrophic consequences for some people…

Deficit reduction enabled first the coalition and then the straight Tory government to pursue a straight Tory objective of a smaller state.”

So there we have it. Under the guise of saving the UK from a non-existent bankruptcy, the Tory-led governments of the last six years have piled cuts onto local services with local councils taking the flak.

Meanwhile, Osborne’s failed austerity experiment has doubled the national debt while vulnerable people pay the price.

The UK, one of the richest but most unequal economies in the industrialised world, could have made different choices – to apply a wealth tax, not to reduce the higher rate of income tax, to let council tax rise based on a more realistic assessment of property value banding.

But the government would rather that those with little or nothing die on the street or languish in bed and breakfast hotels, while local services for the old and young alike wither on the vine.

Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, writing in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @kevingulliver

See: As Shelter marked its 50th birthday a rough sleeper died of cold in Birmingham

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