The presenter of this BBC radio programme, Adrian Goldberg, grew up on the Druids Heath council estate in Birmingham, the home of the ‘municipalism’ pioneered by Joseph Chamberlain when he was Mayor of Birmingham – summarised by Walsall MP John McShane in the Commons in 1930:
“A young person today lives in a municipal house, and he washes himself … in municipal water. He rides on a municipal tram or omnibus, and I have no doubt that before long he will be riding in a municipal aeroplane. He walks on a municipal road; he is educated in a municipal school. He reads in a municipal library and he has his sport on a municipal recreation ground. When he is ill he is doctored and nursed in a municipal hospital and when he dies he is buried in a municipal cemetery.”
Adrian is described as being an ideal candidate to judge the changing nature of the local council, because when he and his family moved there the local authority:
- built properties and
- collected the rent.
- Adrian took a council-subsidised bus service to
- the secondary school run by his local education authority.
- On the way home he’d drop into his council-run library to pick up some books
- or take a swim in the council run pool.
He comments, “Today the situation is much more complex”
Adrian considered the effect of austerity on the role of councils today. Birmingham council has almost halved its staff since 2008, from around 24,000 to 12,500. Last year another £28m was cut from Birmingham’s adult care budget of £230m. 2017/18 – the seventh year of cuts – is predicted to be the toughest year yet with expected reductions of £113m to the council’s overall budget, on top of £650m already cut since 2010.
Local government grants and powers have been greatly reduced in several areas, including education and housing. Read more about the following cases here.
- The fate of the formerly successful council-run Baverstock Secondary School in Druids Heath
- The group of residents who set up the Friends of Walkers Heath Park in November 2011
- The volunteers who are helping to run the library
- Druids Heath’s handsome and historic Bells Farm community centre (below), with its food bank and other services, also kept going by local volunteers.
The link also leads to news of high-rise tower blocks in the area; dilapidation, damp and fire hazards go unremedied, the splendid concierge system was abandoned and full time neighbourhood office advice centres, closed in 2006, were replaced by a private call service which was expensive, often not answering, with staff unable to supply the information needed.
In Birmingham there was a move under John Clancy’s leadership to take back ‘in-house’ the services currently undertaken by profit-making private companies, deciding not to renew one Capita contract and considering the future of refuse collection in the city. This, because the ‘market place’ economy which has developed, privatising refuse collection, road maintenance and ‘back office’ functions in Birmingham, has proved to be more expensive and often less efficient. This hope is fading as Richard Hatcher reports on the new regime: Birmingham Council Children’s Services contracted out, Children’s Centres closed.
The health and safety of council tenants is evidently not a government priority
Inside Housing reports the housing minister’s description of sprinkler systems for high rise blocks as “additional rather than essential” and refusing a council’s request for funding promised after the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Strangely, the conservative Prime Minister expresses admiration for Joseph Chamberlain
Mayor of Birmingham in 1873, city MP in 1876, Joseph Chamberlain directed the construction of good housing for the poorest, libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. Unlike Ms May and colleagues, he was not in favour of a market economy, arguing for tariffs on goods from countries outside the British Empire. He was also an ‘economic interventionist’ (see Lewis Goodall, Newsnight), described as a “gas and water socialist”. He took profit-making private enterprises into public hands, declaring that “profit was irrelevant”.
Ms May’s government continues to implement a series of cuts affecting the lives of the country’s poorest and most disabled with might and main.
Ironically the contemporary politician sharing Chamberlain’s principles is the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose policies she echoes but does not implement.
A reader from Bournville draws attention to an article by Jules Birch in Inside Housing, a weekly magazine for housing professionals. He focusses on a recent TV Panorama programme about the benefit cap that now leaves thousands of people with 50p a week towards their rent.
He noticed that roughly 95% of tweets with the hashtag #benefitcap (scroll down to April 7) were hostile to the people featured in the programme rather than the policy. The majority of people commenting on Twitter were seeing the undeserving individual instead: the stroppy single mother with a mobile phone and the couple with many children. He notes that exactly the same thing happened with Benefits Street, How to Get a Council House and a Dispatches documentary on the cap last month.
Part of the problem, he believes, lay with the way Panorama framed the issue. As Joe Halewood was quick to point out, the programme and its advance publicity seemed to assume that most people capped are unemployed and on Jobseeker’s Allowance, when in fact just 13% are.
The fact that the vast majority of people capped are either unable to work or not required to work was only raised tentatively halfway through the programme. Most of those capped are lone parents with young children who are not required to look for work, or people on Employment and Support Allowance who do not qualify for an exemption but are still not fit for work.
David Pipe explained the effects in a piece following the Dispatches documentary last month. 7,500 households across 370 local authority areas have lost their housing benefit and are now receiving just 50p a week to pay their rent. The cap leaves a nominal amount for housing benefit or Universal Credit once someone’s benefits total more than £20,000 (£23,000 in London). In effect it is imposed on top of the rest of the benefits system.
The latest budget highlighted cuts for the poorest 18-21-year-olds, who will no longer be entitled to help with their rent through Universal Credit from April 1.
For many, Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) are the only thing keeping them in their home and the effect over time will be rising rent arrears and evictions and allocations policies that make it less likely that people on benefits will get a tenancy in the first place. So where and how can the poorest people live? Even people in caravans are being capped, and what will the knock-on costs be in terms of homelessness and the impact on the children?
Meanwhile in Broken Britain, the May government continues the policies of its predecessors and makes decisions which seriously afflict the poorest and greatly benefit the richest: the arms traders, Big Pharma, the privatised utilities, large developers, car manufacturers, private health companies and expensive, inefficient outsourcers – Serco, G4s and Capita.
Recently Lesley Docksey sent this heartfelt reflection:
“The trouble is we know the problem, and it’s all very well George and Seamas saying we have to ban this, get rid of that and set up something else.
“But how do we actually do it, how do we the people force a break between the corporate power and politicians?”
Despite the poor record of service by the private sector in prisons, transport, energy and water, British schools and hospitals are loudly threatened with takeover, a slavish imitation of our special friend’s policies for schools and hospitals.
Anne sent this link to an article by Jon Stone about the fire hazard and other structural failings of Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle, first opened in 2000 under the “private finance initiative”, under which the NHS pays a private company rent-like payments to make use of facilities. The UK now owes more than £222bn to banks and corporations for these Private Finance Initiatives, conceived by Conservatives in the 1990s and ‘embraced’ by New Labour.
Will this hospital be handed over to ‘the state’? In other words, farmed out to Capita, G4S or Serco?
In the FT, Gill Plimmer reported that the Official Journal of the European Union database, which records every public sector contract worth more than £115m, reveals that £20bn worth of government contracts is now handed to the private sector. About half of council waste management services and 23% of human resources, IT and payroll functions are now privatised. Tens of thousands of health, defence, security and IT workers have transferred to corporate employers such as Babcock, G4S, Serco, Capia, Mitie and Carillion. This continues, even though the reputation of the private sector in delivering public services has been repeatedly damaged – examples include the high profile failure of G4S during the Olympics and the legal action facing Virgin Care over its running of NHS and social care services in Devon. Monbiot’s devastating, fully referenced account of such failures may be read here and others have been written by Gill Plimmer in the Financial Times.
As all these services are transferred via the state into corporate care, the cities themselves are being coerced to follow the mayoral route – which, as Steve Beauchampé notes in the Birmingham Press -was soundly rejected by voters in Birmingham, Coventry and seven other cities.
Did Liverpool – which held no referendum – make the right choice?
Chancellor Osborne is insisting that powers must be devolved through the office of a regional mayor – so much easier to induce or threaten than a whole council – a puppet?
As economic geographer, Professor Michael Chisholm summarised the position more politely, “One could cynically say that the proposal for elected mayors is yet another structural diversion while the steady centralisation of power continues”.
Beauchampé proposes consigning this ‘mayoral hokum’ to its rightful place in the dustbin of history, rejecting the notion that in a democracy just one person can understand, represent and address people’s priorities, needs and hopes, creating and implementing a vision for our fast changing region and its youthful population. He sets out a ‘radical’ – because truly democratic – alternative as a draft proposal.
But, as Lesley asks, “how do we the people force the break between the corporate power and politicians?”
Proportional representation could be the first step.
Canny Scots politicians act in the interests of their people – the rest of the UK hands food safety over to Capita
Public health minister Maureen Watt is celebrating the launch of Food Standards Scotland, which “will be a trusted source of food safety advice and nutritional guidance”.
News broke recently that Capita has taken over Britain’s Food and Environment Research Agency, after paying £20m for a 75% stake and despite a string of privatisation scandals and has outlined plans to almost double sales by making the unit’s work more commercial; Professor Tim Lang warns that no one will pay for evidence about food and biodiversity, or food and pesticide residues.
Professor Lang, who heads City University London’s food policy unit and advises Westminster and World Health Organisation, said: “I think it’s absolutely scandalous. This is selling the state, and the moment a state loses its access to science it’s in trouble.” He claimed many food policy experts shared his view but were unwilling to speak out about their concerns.
The Scotsman reports that the primary concern of the FSS is consumer protection – making sure that food is safe to eat, ensuring consumers know what they are eating and improving nutrition. It will also provide policy advice, keep consumers informed and ensure the enforcement of food regulations.
A new YouGov poll had shown shows that other than costs, the Scottish public is most concerned about making sure they and their families eat a healthy, balanced diet. This was followed by worries over food authenticity and concern over food safety.
Executive director of Which?, Richard Lloyd, said: “It’s important that Food Standards Scotland builds on the work of its predecessor and operates transparently as a strong, independent consumer champion. It’s vital that the new food agency tackles the challenges facing Scotland, including obesity rates, food poisoning and food fraud, putting the interests of Scottish consumers at its heart.”
FSS chief executive Geoff Ogle said that the new body “will provide a regime responsive to Scotland’s needs. Our focus will be on making decisions based on the food safety, labelling and nutrition issues that affect the Scottish public most directly.”
Another count on which Scotland is offering a more beneficial example to the British government.
News broke today that the Kings Fund is paving the way for further privatisation of the NHS and Capita formally takes over the Food and Environment Research Agency next Wednesday, despite a string of privatisation scandals; these include the ATOS debacle and the revelation that G4S and Serco, two big outsourcers, had overcharged on electronic tagging contracts. (Left: Kings Fund: 11-13 Cavendish Square, London)
MP Margaret Hodge: “the most important public policy issue of our time”
The Serious Fraud Office investigates Serco and G4S, the National Audit Office has called for tighter scrutiny of government contracts and Margaret Hodge, who chairs the public accounts committee, has called the privatisation of public services – with around half the government’s £187bn annual spending going to private contractors – “the most important public policy issue of our time”.
Capita formally takes over FERA next Wednesday after paying £20m for a 75% stake
Professor Tim Lang, who heads City University London’s food policy unit and advises Westminster and World Health Organisation, said: “I think it’s absolutely scandalous. This is selling the state, and the moment a state loses its access to science it’s in trouble.” He claimed many food policy experts shared his view but were unwilling to speak out about their concerns.
Capita track record in Birmingham – just four of many complaints
- David Bailey, professor of industrial strategy at Aston Business School has received a large amount of correspondence from distraught and seriously ill constituents who have been waiting months for Capita to carry out an assessment for their claim for disability benefits, many of whom are now facing serious financial problems because of these delays.
- Professor Bailey has repeatedly called for the contract to be market-tested, and said: “If the contract had been cancelled in 2012, at my estimated cancellation cost of £25 million, then there would actually have been a net in-year financial benefit for the council given the £28 million saved.”
- Birmingham City Council handed over its council tax collection department to Capita Service Birmingham in 2011 with a commitment to raise collection rates, but in July the Post reported that Council tax arrears in Birmingham have risen by 15% in the last year with the local authority owed more than £105 million.
- MP Roger Godsiff, who has questioned Capita closely about its costs and profit margins (a taxpayers’ subsidy) said the contract for IT, call centre and pay roll services is an “egregious misuse of Birmingham citizens’ public funds”.
Capita has already outlined plans to almost double sales by making the unit’s work more commercial; Professor Lang warns that the agency will now be under pressure to ignore low-paying projects vital to public safety and the environment in favour of more lucrative research – no one will pay for evidence about food and biodiversity, or food and pesticide residues.
G4S, Serco, Capita and the like have been flourishing – but is the friendly government worm turning?
Gill Plimmer reports that the Official Journal of the European Union database, which records every public sector contract worth more than £115m, reveals that £20bn worth of government contracts is now handed to the private sector.
About half of council waste management services and 23% of human resources, IT and payroll functions are now privatised. Tens of thousands of health, defence, security and IT workers have transferred to corporate employers such as Babcock, G4S, Serco, Capita, Mitie and Carillion.
The process continues, even though the reputation of the private sector in delivering public services has been repeatedly damaged – recent examples include the high profile failure of G4S during the Olympics and the legal action facing Virgin Care over its running of NHS and social care services in Devon.
In an earlier article, Plimmer notes that government has shaken the private sector companies by deciding to keep four out of nine prisons, due to be outsourced, in state hands because providers did not give ‘best value for money’; confidence has been further shaken by the decision that G4S will have to relinquish its Yorkshire prison contract because of inefficiency.
Read the full article here.