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Why public service still makes a difference

January 24, 2013

An edited version of Nick’s speech given to the Come Together austerity conference held in Liverpool on the 18th of January.

The people of Liverpool and Newcastle share so much in common: a fine industrial heritage; an international, maritime outlook; a vibrant and distinctive culture; an ambition for their fine cites and their populations.

We also stand shoulder-to-shoulder in managing the consequences of savage cuts, unfairly loaded onto the communities least able to respond.

I don’t deny the need to reduce the UK’s fiscal deficit, but I believe the speed of cuts has damaged the economy, jeopardised the recovery, extended rather than brought forward the period it will take to resolve the structural deficit.

In his statement to parliament the secretary of state argued that all councils had a fair deal. He compared the grant settlement for Wokingham with the settlement for Newcastle. How can it be fair when the cuts in Wokingham are eight times greater than those we face in Newcastle?

Political decisions, allocating £26 billion in public spending, hidden behind a complex and confusing financial system, understood by a handful of people. That’s why I have called for an independent process – jointly commissioned by central and local government – to re-establish confidence in a broken system which we can no longer trust.

In Newcastle we have had to propose cuts of £90 million over three years. The Autumn Statement has loaded a further £10 million.

If you want to know the human cost of these dry statistics, listen to Nicola Voss, who’s here with us today, and who spoke so movingly at our City Council last week. Her struggle to raise her disabled child, already a daily challenge, made all the more difficult as the Council – her Council – struggles to reduce the costs of respite care -in the face of a [30%] reduction in the amount allocated by central government to cover the social care of children and young people.

As we do all we can to protect services to the most vulnerable, we find ourselves in the position to cut the day-to-day services which a wider range of people value so much. Analysis by the LGA shows that by 2019 local government won’t be able to afford our basic legal obligations.

And I’ve today published Newcastle’s response to Eric Pickles suggestions of 50 ways to cut spending by making efficiencies. Well, Eric, catch up. We’re doing them already. Or at least those that represent genuine efficiencies rather than political dogma. Local government is well ahead of you. The most efficient part of the public sector. Closer to the people we serve. Responsive to their needs. Cooperating in new forms of service delivery and co-production with our communities. Innovating. Investing in the Future.

Last year, the Newburn area of the city was hit by severe flooding. Our staff worked through the night to make sure the community was kept well-informed and safe. Whilst others argued about responsibility and liability, we got on with our job.

As we speak, Council workers across the country are working hard to get people safely to work and school, through the snow and ice, working to make sure our most vulnerable citizens stay safe and secure.

Public service is no luxury, it is something our cities could not survive without.

And it’s not just in an emergency that our public spirit shines. Every day in customer service centres, housing offices and on the streets of our city, our staff are hard at work in the heart of communities, quietly dealing with both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Public service adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It helps support the increasingly fragile ‘social contract’ between us and those we serve. We cannot allow the demands of austerity to put more distance between public institutions and the people.

We cannot replace the faith that people still have in their local democratic institutions, by a 08457 number that could be answered in either Manchester or Mumbai. We cannot deliver trusted services if our staff are paid below a living wage. We cannot withdraw from our obligation to invest for the future, securing the growth and jobs we need for future generations.

So, just as we lobby the government for a fairer deal, let’s also get on with the job of making fair choices for tough times.

The status quo is not an option, we have to change the way we do things. Some of this change has been forced upon us. But let’s stay positive. There is a choice and a chance to set up something new, better and more suited to the needs of our people and the times we are living in.

A fairer society. For a future beyond austerity. For strong and vibrant cities, with the confidence to face the future with pride.

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