THE PRIME MINISTER recently told the UN that we must show we are capable of learning and maturing, and finally taking responsibility for the destruction we have inflicted. He was referring to the planet, but he could have been talking about the task facing his new Department for Levelling Up.
The decision to replace ‘Local Government’ with the slogan ‘Levelling Up’ in the name of a UK government department is so replete with irony it is really quite surreal. For it has been the policy of drastically slashing funding for local government in England over the past 11 years that has exacerbated, or actually created, many of the problems that Levelling Up, if it means anything, now needs to tackle.
Due to poor media coverage, there is little public understanding of the sheer scale of the attack on local government which has taken place. As the Institute for Government explains, “Central government grants were cut 38 per cent in real-terms between 2009/10 and 2018/19…from £34.6 billion to £24.8 billion in cash terms.” These cuts are so big they have been truly transformative – and not in a good way. They have had a dramatic effect on the quality of life for millions of people. In 2019 Unison reported that around 25 per cent of council jobs had been axed over the previous decade. This was not only a blow to those workers and their families, but to the communities in which they lived, and the people who relied on the services they provided.
Of course, cuts like this usually affect the poorest and most disadvantaged people most – but that is not inevitable. The inequality of the impact was quite deliberate. The Conservatives targeted the biggest cuts on the poorest communities. And this targeting was almost unbelievably cruel. In 2018 a report by Lloyds Bank Foundation charity found that: “To the extent that there have been cuts in spending on disadvantage, they have happened almost exclusively in the most deprived areas of England”.
And then, just to double down further on the inequality, central government told councils that the solution to their problems was that they could raise Council Tax to bring in some replacement funding. They surely did this in the knowledge that council tax is ‘highly regressive’, meaning that, as a proportion of income, it takes most from the poorest.
To add yet another layer of injustice, the poorest areas then suffered the highest Council Tax increases. Poor areas have more properties in Band A, which don’t generate as much income as larger properties in more prosperous areas, so the rises need to be higher to raise the same amount.
So: not only were services to the poorest people and communities slashed, the burden of funding the depleted services which remained was increasingly shifted away from central government and on to council tax payers in those areas. This meant that the poorest people, who suffered the biggest cuts, were paying the highest price to keep their diminished services functioning.
In yet another level of cruel irony, far from harming the Conservatives’ electoral prospects, this deliberate and calculated injustice, leading to hardship and suffering, actually paid political dividends. Labour councils in deprived areas were forced into doing the dirtiest work of austerity, closing libraries and Sure Start centres, unable to provide social care to many who needed it, and making numerous cuts that led to a deterioration in quality of life. Then, at the last General Election, some traditional Labour voters in the areas which had suffered most switched to the Conservatives, because they blamed Labour councils and MPs for the hardship and deprivation in their local area. It was enough to make one weep.
It remains to be seen what the new Department for Levelling Up will actually do, if anything, to address the gross inequalities caused or exacerbated by Conservative cuts to local government. But we will know it is no more than a slogan if it does not spend much of its efforts in a battle with the Treasury, trying to restore to councils their pre-austerity levels of funding and capability. And then, perhaps, it could spend the rest of its time addressing the systematic erosion of social security which has left so many people facing destitution this winter.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden