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Newcastle Labour leader founds a big society

18 February 2013

3:27 PM

18 February 2013

3:27 PM

Labour’s Nick Forbes is a great pioneer of austerity. As leader of Newcastle City Council he bravely decided to shut half the city’s libraries, close two respite centres for disabled people and cut 100 per cent of funding to arts institutes. He said he had to do it, because the Government had reduced the council’s funding (though the city still gets more per household than most areas) and he needed to protect services for vulnerable people.

Forbes wrote a letter to The Observer predicting ‘the break up of civil society’. Some of us wondered though – did he really need to cut 100 per cent of the arts funding and close the libraries? Were the numbers more flexible than he suggested? Forbes was amazed at our cynicism. Yes, he assured us, such drastic cuts were absolutely necessary.

Last week he made an announcement: such drastic cuts were not absolutely necessary. Over the previous weeks his senior party colleagues, including Harriet Harman, had stepped into the political mess and the council had miraculously found £600,000 for the arts, which meant the cuts would be more like 50 per cent, rather than 100 per cent. Great news. Maybe they can tell us how they did it? I called the council to ask.

Was it new revenue or spending sacrifices? They said the money would come from business rates, revenue from the local airport, health funding and savings from sharing facilities with a university, but none of that revenue suddenly arrived in the past few weeks. I spent half an hour asking what had changed. There was no answer. When I contacted to the leader of the local Liberal Democrats, David Faulkner, he had the same questions.

Forbes felt there was no need to openly analyse what had gone on. Instead he gave an interview to the loyal (Trinity Mirror) local newspaper and retweeted the subsequent story: ‘Council leader reveals plans to save the arts’. He also had the gall to suggest ‘wealthy artists’ contribute to the fund. This comes after months of dismissing them as ex-pat Geordies – short-sighted foolishness that left many wishing Forbes was an ex-pat Geordie.

When the amended budget was published on Friday it included news that the respite centres have a year’s stay of execution. However, there is definitely, definitely no money to save the libraries. The council has asked for volunteers, though the most likely volunteers are the campaigners, who were called disingenuous by the council and treated like an opposing party, rather than just people who wanted their libraries to stay open.

One of the remaining complaints of the campaigners is the council’s divisive insistence that keeping the libraries open would mean ending services for ‘the most vulnerable’. I looked through recent spending commitments to see what the council means by ‘the most vulnerable’. One example, voted for by the council a few months ago, is a pay rise to 2,200 of its workers, ensuring them a minimum of £7.20 per hour – a ‘living wage’. That costs £980,000.

There is also the Newcastle Fund – millions of pounds in grants currently being paid out. In November the council voted to give a further £1.5m over the next three years. Some of the grants are for old people and disabled people. There is also £26,750 to Show Racism the Red Card – Council money for a football campaign, despite football being one of the richest sports in the world. A skills-swap programme gets £42,640. An LGBT choir called Northern Proud Voices gets £8,700.

Pride Radio, which caters for LGBT listeners, gets £9,320. I’m not L, G, B or T, but I’m pretty sure gay people listen to the same radio stations I do. These are great things to spend money on. I understand why the Council prefers them to libraries, but this is not the break-up of civil society. It is not the spending of a Council reduced to propping up ‘the most vulnerable’.

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