The impact of the spending cuts: an e-interview with Kate Belgrave

In the run-up to today’s Budget and the March for the Alternative this Saturday I’m writing a few bits and pieces on the impending spending cuts. Below is an e-interview conducted with Kate Belgrave. Kate has been travelling the country interviewing people who rely on council services. She publishes articles of these interviews here and tweets as @hangbitch.

You’ve been travelling the country interviewing people about the impact spending cuts would have on their area. Could you talk a little bit about that? Where have you been, what have you seen, etc?

I spent December in the Northwest and January-Feb in the Northeast. My aim is to talk to council service users over a year to see how council cuts really play out with people who rely on those services.

I’ve been writing about council for a long time and it occurred to me that not everyone knew what sorts of services councils provided – people know about rubbish collection and so on, but councils also provide care services, carehomes, daycentres for people with physical disabilities and learning disabilities, community centres (which
sometimes provide cheap meals, etc), respite care services, meals on wheels, housing maintenance, advice services, and a lot of complex care packages which are provided between themselves and the NHS.

They also often provide and/or support drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, and fund voluntary groups that support people with serious mental health problems and so on. I felt that the major political parties were glossing over all of this. The focus was on libraries, forests and the NHS (which are all important – it’s just that there’s
more).

So, I saved up for about six months and then headed out in December. I talked to people using housing and care services in Manchester, disabled daycentre users in Shropshire, parents of severely disabled children in Lancashire, council housing tenants in Skelmersdale, drug, alcohol and mental health support service users in Newcastle, community centre users in Middlesbrough, parents of kids at a special needs unit in Cambridgeshire and also a lot of people in London, which is where I’m based.

I’ve been pretty shocked by what I’ve seen – the cutting of that special needs unit in Cambridgeshire, Lancashire county council’s tightening of care eligibility criteria, those severely physically disabled people in Shropshire losing their daycentre and so on. Those cuts decisions will affect lives adversely and it seems unacceptable in this day and age.

At the very least, you want to know that if you have a debilitating stroke at the age of 38, you’ll get decent care
and have a place to go during the day where you can rehabilitate and spend time with other people. You also want to live in a society which provides those services for people. That’s why you pay tax.

What do you think the impact of these cuts will be?

I think for a lot of people, they’ll be truly devastating. Those people in Shropshire say that without their daycentre, they’ll be stuck at home “staring at the four walls.” Lancashire county council is planning to close care respite homes for children with disabilities. Those families rely on that respite care.

Without respite care, you just never get a break. Disabled people who are reassessed and found to have only ‘moderate’ needs will lose their care packages. Others will be charged for care services and if they can’t afford to pay, they just won’t get those services.

One man I’ve been speaking to in Lancashire is extremely concerned that the nursing care his severely disabled son receives will be compromised because the groups that provide nurses are facing cuts. The parent is an elderly man, but he and his wife will have to make up any shortfall in care or finance themselves. They also have the added worry that when they’re not longer around (they’re in their 60s), their son won’t have anyone who can provide that backup.

The parents of kids at the special needs unit in Cambridgeshire were terrified – their children (some were on the autism spectrum) had ended up at that unit because they’d had dreadful experiences in mainstream education. The council was planning to send them back to mainstream schools.

If the Middlesbrough community centre I went to closes, so will the daycentre facilities for people with learning and physical disabilities that the centre hosts. It’s extraordinary that people in these groups are being forced to pay for the banking crisis and zero council tax increases.

There are other issues, of course. An important one is that thousands of people will be made redundant in areas where there really are few other employment options. It seems very likely that people will lose their homes and that we’ll end up seeing a lot more of the social problems that accompany large-scale unemployment.

The other important point is that other nations will take the UK’s lead. Neoliberal politicians in New Zealand (where I’m originally from), Australia and Europe especially will be watching these cuts with interest and will feel inspired if Osborne manages to pull any of this programme off. We’re some way ahead of the UK in dismantling the welfare state in places in NZ, but that doesn’t mean our own Conservative government won’t be taking considerable interest in the UK government’s attempt to sell this “the deficit justifies an attack on the state” rhetoric.

You’ve written a little bit on the difficulties bloggers and citizen journalists have had when trying to report on the activities of local councils. Is this an attitude common to all councils, and what role do bloggers have in holding these officials to account?

I wrote in some detail on this subject recently for Open Democracy.

I have generally found councils obstructive and difficult. It’s not only that they won’t let journalists into council meetings, or try to ban filming and recording. They also actively try to stop you talking to service users, and refuse to take your calls, or provide you with information.

It’s my view that some of the best journalists of this era are bloggers covering local rounds – they’re the people who read agendas, attend meetings, comb reports, talk to people and work up big contact books and readerships. That’s what journalism is. There’s a great deal of professionalism there.

I think the term “citizen journalist” is no longer appropriate for a lot of these people. They’re fully-fledged reporters – real “nose for news” types who don’t suffer politicians at all. They refuse to be pressured. A number of us are trained journalists and NUJ members and are regularly contacted by the mainstream for content and contacts. Local councils are shit-scared of us as well – Roger T at the BarnetEye has put the wind up Brian Coleman on several occasions and councils have tried to throw me out and ban me from talking to people.

Union members have even told me they can no longer access my blog on Hammersmith and Fulham servers.

I’d make the point also that some of us have mixed feelings about participating in the mainstream press. I like getting published there from time to time for obvious reasons and I think there are some excellent people working at some papers, but I tend to feel that generally, the mainstream press is part of today’s political problem.

It’s about opinion, ego, exaggeration and party alignment, rather than good old shoe-leather, grassroots journalism. I really don’t think it’s about talent any more, by and large, and hasn’t been for a while. If you schmooze and push yourself forward and write about “controversial” things like stripping, sex and boozing, etc, you’re probably going to make some – well, headway. If you don’t have the stomach for that sort of “look at me” writing, you won’t.

I think as you get older, you lose interest in that kind of writing as well – I did more of it when I was younger and working in the mainstream. I can’t see that any big paper would pay me a salary to do the work that I do now. Talking about daycentres in small councils, or community centres in Middlesbrough is just not exciting enough and/or likely to shift product in the way that big media is desperate to. They’re important stories, but they’re not “big” stories that will generate advertising.

We’re talking about a mainstream press that will send literally hundreds of people to cover the Chilean miners’ rescue, or the Japan earthquake disaster, but nobody to cover the fallout from, say, a carehome privatisation, or massive funding cuts. That’s not to say major world events shouldn’t be covered – just that some of us passionately believe there are other priorities and are prepared to put a lot of time and money into covering those priorities.

I do think a lot of people in the mainstream feel that way as well – a hell of a lot of them follow respected bloggers on twitter and are regularly in contact and talk as equals. I feel that senior mainstream people like Andrew Marr are dismissive of good bloggers, but a lot of good mainstream people are not. They can see that good work is being done and respect it.

Are you going on the March for the Alternative on Saturday? And if so, what is your alternatve to the coalition’s spending plans?

Yes, I’ll be going. I think a show of numbers will be extremely important.

As for alternatives – depends on how granular you want to get. Possibilities vary from council to council – I (and a number of union branches which presented councils with alternatives) think much more effort could have been made to consider small council tax increases at councils, utilise reserves to buy time, jettisoning consultants (some councils brought in expensive consultants to advise on cuts) and charging works to capital accounts, rather than revenue accounts where that was possible.

Notts County, for instance, had some building works charged to the revenue account. Unison thought there was an argument to be made for charging those works to the relevant capital reserves, which would have freed up revenue. There were probably plenty of examples of that sort of possibility in capital and revenue budgets across the country.

The problem is that nobody wants to hear that sort of suggestion if their reasons for cutting services are ideological. What we’re seeing at the moment is a wholesale attack on the notion of state provision and welfare. I don’t particularly think it is about fiscal realities.

Hardline Tory councils like Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet have been pursuing the cuts ideology for some years – long before the deficit “justified” cuts and charging. They don’t want to hear arguments in favour of preserving services. That argument is at odds with their whole thesis. Tory councils like Lancashire have built up enormous reserves, which they have done instead of spending money on services. Those people are about road improvements, apartment-building and city development. They’re not about carehomes, hostels for people with mental health needs, or sheltered housing wardens.

That’s why, on another level, I want to hear a new, alternative political rhetoric about fair distribution. UKUncut has started to do this and is making an important point in a beautifully simple way – “big corporations need to make a fair contribution.” It’s simple, but it makes the point perfectly. I’ve heard people in non-political circles talking about it.

There’s also a discussion to be had about political priorities – should we be spending a massive amount attacking in Libya while people in wheelchairs here are being thrown onto the street? Have bankers adequately compensated taxpayers for throwing the economy into recession and for bailouts?

This is not a good time in human history, but it’s an important time. Too many people are suffering when they shouldn’t be. We must redefine our world.

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