Newcastle in 2016 – a city at war or a city at peace with itself?
The next time you pack your sports bag or gather up your library books stop to think how you would feel if your library or leisure centre were no longer there.
The fact is these public buildings have been a part of our daily lives for as long as we can remember. But if a report by the Local Government Association is to be believed they could be consigned to history by 2020 as funding for local government continues to decline and demand for essential services increase.
The last two years of cuts are only now beginning to have an effect. Those who have lost their jobs, their benefits, or their homes, are suffering real hardship. As a council we will do our best to help, but the harsh reality is: we have another four years of spending cuts to come, and local government is taking more than its fair share of the pain. The state of our neighbourhoods and our families in a few years’ time is now setting alarm bells ringing and the level of support we have come to depend upon will no longer be there for all of us.
As a council we are facing what economists call the scissors of doom: savage budget cuts on the one hand and rising demand for our services on the other. By the time of the coalition Government’s fourth year in power, the city council will have taken a £50m cut in its budget and saved £60m to meet unavoidable cost pressures – a total funding shortfall of £110m. With another two years of cuts beyond that, it’s no wonder the doom sayers predict the demise of libraries – especially as adult social care costs and other statutory responsibilities increase, swallowing up to 90 per cent of council budgets.
Faced with these pressures, it would be easy to blame the Government for everything and descend into a slanging match – but the public would not thank us for that. For me politics is about the art of the possible, not the impossible, and I instinctively refuse to bow to these pressures.
Our recent City Deal of £92m – worth £1 billion over 25 years – will create13,000 jobs. It’s a magnificent example of what can be achieved if we work together to sell the innovation and energy that so characterises the people of the North East. There is no time to rest on our laurels. We must harness these qualities and use them to provide vital services to our residents who need them most.
On Wednesday, July 18, the public and agencies from across the city will come together to look into the future. We will assess the scale of the challenges we will face in 2016 and discuss how we can meet them head-on in a way that protects the most vulnerable and allows the city to emerge stronger than ever as the region’s engine of growth. But what will the scale of that challenge be in four years time?
The UK economy will still not have returned to the growth experienced before the recession in 2007 and unemployment is likley to remain stobbornly high. Population may have grown by as much as 6,000 with a 5 per cent increase in the over 65s and a 30 per cent increase in those aged over 90 putting social care budgets under severe strain.
The introduction of the Universal Credit between 2013 and 2017 will result in a cut in benefits including Housing Benefit, and the council will be given responsibility for discretionary support for council tax rebates and benefits – forcing us to make difficult choices about eligibility.
The gap between the haves and the have nots will widen, especially among the older population while jobs among the working population will go to the skilled, leaving many of the unskilled really struggling to find work.
Newcastle will remain a safe city but social and economic pressures, and cuts to police budgets, will make it harder to maintain crime reduction. More hidden symptoms of social tensions may be seen in more domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Health reforms will be well underway and there may be disruption to the healthcare system. NHS budget reductions and massive cost pressures could result in service reductions becoming more visible. In social care underfunding will continue to lead to instability in the care market and lead to more rationing.
The council will have fewer schools under its direct control, and the number of children requiring direct support from the council is likely to increase as progress on child poverty goes into reverse.
On a positive note, the supply of housing should increase by 2016 as Goverment-imposed financial constraints are lifted and brownfield sites begin to be developed. Demand for social housing however will be under huge pressure.
As leader of the city council, I’ve decided that the traditional approach of reducing department budgets year on year is no longer adequate for the scale of the challenge the council now faces. What’s really needed is a radical rethink of what sort of council we want to be in 2016 and beyond. Some councils will become small commissioning bodies, outsourcing all services to the private sector. For me, however, the cooperative council model, seeking to build stronger ties with communities and helping them play a much bigger role in providing services is a much more effective and accountable response. To get there – in a fair and consensual way – we will plan our budget programme over a three year timescale and continue to listen carefully to what residents and businesses are telling us but we will need to be open-minded.
The idea that everyone gets an equal share of services will no longer be viable. Quite simply, some people will get less support as scare resources are targeted on those with the greatest needs. This must happen if we are serious about making Newcastle a fairer city which is more at peace with itself. That is why the recent report by the Newcastle Fairness Commission will be important; helping councillors and other decision makers explain why precious services and resources are being allocated in the way that they are.
The city council does not have all of the answers to the problems that we face. But we can play a leadership role by bringing together the people and agencies of the city to share our experiences, our expertise and our opinions so we can act in the best interests of our people.
Please come along to our event next Wednesday, and let’s talk about tomorrow. The challenges we face are huge but together we can come through this and build a city that is prosperous, forward thinking, welcoming and a model of social justice.