Commmunity Rights and Spending Cuts

November 2, 2020   By Adam Lent, Chief Executive, New Local

The wave of spending cuts about to hit councils is yet another Westminster slap in the face to local communities. Adam Lent argues that we can only stop central government’s abuse by demanding a parliamentary act protecting the rights of our communities.

Manchester City Council has just unveiled a multi-million pound programme of cuts including 195 redundancies. They are not alone. Across the country councils are having to rein in spending – in some places very severely. This seems crazy of course to any objective observer. Not only have councils sliced around a third out of their budgets already since 2010 but we are in the middle of a pandemic, a jobs crisis and, soon, a second lockdown. Councils are on the frontline of these fights and yet here they are having to weaken their capacity while actually adding to job losses. The result is inevitable: more infections, more deaths, more unemployment.

This idiocy originates in Downing Street. It is now clear that a culture exists at the highest levels of government that will chuck billions of pounds at large private sector companies to do shoddy work on Covid while starving local government of money despite the fact it has proved itself far more effective at fighting the pandemic. It’s a remnant of the ‘private good, public bad’ mindset that has dominated Whitehall since the 1980s but now shorn of any logic or common sense – a sort of Thatcherite ideological zombie: brainless but dangerous.

This is infuriatingly stupid to those outside the Westminster bubble but it raises a far deeper question: why does central Government get to make such bad decisions that will have profoundly damaging effects on local communities? Why do Dominic Cummings, Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson, safe in their Westminster offices, have the power to disrupt the lives of millions in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Croydon or any of the other areas facing massive cuts without a minute’s consultation with the communities that will be affected?

The reason, as I detailed in an essay published a couple of weeks ago, is a massive gap in how we think about rights.

We pride ourselves as a nation on the fact that we have the laws, culture and judicial system to uphold the rights of the individual. We also give numerous organisations, such as businesses and government bodies, the freedom to protect their rights in court – just check out the list of cases before the Supreme Court. But (and it’s a big ‘but’) we don’t think about, talk about or legally protect the rights of local communities. The result is a hopelessly skewed system that upholds the interests of big government and big business and leaves local communities unable to defend themselves.

One only need to look at what has happened over the last few months to see how easy it is for central government to ride roughshod over local communities without a second thought for their rights. The Government is now transferring  planning powers from councils to central government, considering doing the same with social care provision and imposing major construction projects. And then, of course, there is the way Covid restrictions have been lifted and imposed on local areas at will by Whitehall culminating in the epic battle between Downing Street and Greater Manchester.

But the truth is, this bout of centralisation is merely an intensification of many decades in which local communities have been ignored while big government and big business has been favoured. Decades over which those communities have had to endure ‘trends’ over which they supposedly have no control and no say but which affect them profoundly: pollution, climate change, long-term unemployment, gentrification, financial crises, bouts of radical public service reform. It’s a list that goes on and to which we can now add spending cuts in the middle of the biggest public health and economic crisis in seventy years.

It’s also a list that will continue to grow over coming years unless we push back now. We need to stop talking about healthy, well-off communities as some nice-to-have, aspirational policy goal and start recognising that local communities have a fundamental right to health, a decent standard of living and, most importantly, to determine for themselves how to achieve those goals. That shift will only come about if we demand a piece of landmark legislation to enshrine those rights just as individuals and organisations have come to expect. This would be a Community Rights Act that will make it impossible for big government and big business to trample over communities unchallenged. An Act that would place the local networks of people and places that we all rely upon back at the heart of what we value in this country.

You can find out more about community rights and a Community Rights Act by reading Adam’s essay here.