It’s one of those stories that leaps out at you. Partly because it’s probably something you never think about, partly because it seems so sad and partly because it tells you how society is changing. Kind of a canary in the mine.
Figures put together by BBC Local Radio following a Freedom of Information Request show that the cost to local councils of funeral and burial costs for those who die without any family or friends have greatly increased over the last couple of years. It used to be that councils only had to do this for vagrants – those of no fixed abode or known lineage. But, according to the Local Government Association, increasingly the deceased does have family – but they refuse to pay the costs. The fracturing of families, with the prevalence of second marriages, partners, ex-partners, step-parents and the kaleidoscope of relationships in modern Britain – and, perhaps, mere selfishness (“ should I pay out £3,000 for the old bugger when he’s left me next to nothing in his will?) – has led to a modern phenomenon. It’s sad enough and bad enough that there should be so many such people who die without any caring relatives or friends. But it also highlights how much as a society, for all our Smartphones, Tablets, email shopping and recreational culture, we rely on public services; of government at different levels; of ‘them’ to step in to save the day. The biggest increase in such ‘paupers’ funerals’ as they used to be called (‘public health funerals’ in today’s more sensitive/euphemistic times) is in the north-west – the region that is amongst those likely to be hit worst by the biggest change to the way local government is financed and configured since – well, pretty much since ever!
A combination of the HUGE cut in direct grants from central government ( 56% over the next four years; a figure buried away in the small print of last week’s autumn financial statement: no, you didn’t miss THAT in George Osborne’s statement – he didn’t mention it – on top of cuts of around 40% initiated by the previous ConDem government); the abolition of the redistributive nature of business rates and devolution to most of the big city regions (including Liverpool) amount to nothing less than a revolution.
Lord Porter, the Conservative peer who heads the Local Government Association puts in stark terms that are easy to comprehend the extent of the cuts and their likely impact:
“Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.
“These local services which people cherish will have to be drastically scaled back or lost altogether as councils are increasingly forced to do more with less and protect life and death services, such as caring for the elderly and protecting children, already buckling under growing demand.
Given that Lord Burns is not one of the usual suspects who can be expected to condemn everything a Tory administration does, I think we should take these remarks seriously and as correct.
Of course, the government will say that it is providing a pool of money for enterprise and that councils will be able to keep all of their business rates (levied on commercial premises at so many pence of the pond of their rateable – or rentable – value). Councils can also put up their Council Tax by 2% to help pay for social care – residential properties are put into one of eight bands, depending on their market value, mostly set nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Unfortunately, places like Liverpool are going to be clobbered all over again, in relation to other parts of the country. First, outside the retail sector, it has fewer, high-paying businesses and benefitted from the re-distributive nature of the national business rate ‘pot’. Secondly, it has far fewer domestic properties at the top Council Tax band, so a 2% hike here will be much less than, say, leafy Surrey. Plus, of course, Liverpool suffers from a range of ‘deprivation factors’ that means its citizens require – and rely on – more of the public services provided by councils than in other parts of the country.
Liverpool’s Directly Elected Executive Mayor Joe Anderson – true, a combative Labour politician but who has an open offer to government ministers and anyone else to look at the council’s ‘books’, probably does not exaggerate when he says:
…despite working hard to find innovative ways of keeping our libraries and children’s centres open, we cannot absorb such a scale of further cuts without it having a deep and lasting effect.
“But there is only so far we can stretch and the next wave will decimate us.”
“It is possible that during 2017/18 the council will no longer have sufficient funds to deliver any discretionary services. A tipping point could be reached in 2018/19 when the council could struggle to fund all its mandatory service provision.”
So, we could be just 18 months from the council stopping everything except that which it has to (no libraries, leisure centres, etc.) and just two and half years when it cannot even carry out its legal duties – providing care for the elderly in their homes, or funding ‘care packages’ in residential homes, caring for vulnerable children, and – yes- funding the ‘paupers’ funerals’.
The combination of the cuts allied to devolution (an offer of extra powers over such aspects as planning and training but not, as in Manchester, the health service, and a so-called Metro Mayor for the city region), means that when people do realise the extent of these cuts, central government will be able to say “well, don’t blame us, look to your council for not spending their money wisely or being an attractive place for business”.
In the interests of political balance, it should be noted that the government says that, taken as a package, the spending on local government has not been reduced in a draconian fashion, but as a nation we’re still borrowing money at an unsustainable rate, and if not local government, what? Schools? Hospitals?
All that acknowledged – and the fact that central government is closing some of the tax avoidance loopholes, and that cuts already made to public services, particularly in the police, have not, in the event, had the calamitous conferences many had predicted – this is still a really big change; one of the most significant we’ve had in public life since World War II.
The effects are not going to be evenly spread and it’s hard to see how the cuts will not exacerbate a broad north/south, poor/rich divide and have a very significant impact – to put it mildly – on vulnerable people, as well as a further and dramatic hollowing out public provision more generally.
Indeed, the effects of all these changes – none of which, it should be stressed, the result of any direct democratic process; council leaders agreed the change with ministers, and then gained formal approval from their councils – are so huge, so fundamental, they amount to the ending of local government as we have known it.
At the time when my grandfather and great-grandfather were grand fromages in local government, the councils did most of the things most people cared about and which had a material effect on their lives – even survival. It was councils who largely built the sewerage systems and generated clean water supplies (so saving untold thousands from Cholera), built the homes and rented them out to most of the population, set up the gas and electricity organisations, built and repaired the roads, and managed the schools. Even in my time when I started as a trainee newspaper reporter in the mid-‘70s, they still did a lot of that, and we had the staff to ensure that we attended every meeting of every council, even the parish councils – one of my first jobs was to attend the meeting of such a council in a mining village. Council stories – whether from meetings/agenda or otherwise – generated page lead after page leads. Often the front-page splash. Local councils mattered and the local media (radio, too) covered their activities in great details. Even now, a quarter of all public spending is on local government – only, at the moment, most of that money is sent by grants using various formulae and criteria from central government. But no more.
As one commentator put it, councils are changing from being local welfare systems to enterprise bodies. I don’t think the majority of people have even begun to understand the earthquake that is going to hit them. And I’m not sure that local media are up to the task of either explaining what is going on, or galvanising their readers/viewers/listeners to start preparing for alternative ways to do the things that ‘they’ used to do, even with the BBC’s enthusiastic noises for support for hyperlocal news websites. A perfect storm of huge losses in journalistic staffs in local media and the closing and merging of hundreds of titles that used to be the ‘watchdog’ for local authorities and inform the residents as to what has been proposed and decided, has coincided with the point where social media has resulted in an increase in identity politics and new networks which owe little or nothing to geographical spaces, at the point where we live ever more atomised existence with many not even knowing their close neighbours.
Most importantly, we need to start thinking NOW how we can come up with alternative strategies and systems – involving charities, the voluntary sector, new groups as yet to be formed, with the means of communicating and generating support. Doing nothing, making no changes on how we ‘imagine’ local services and local governance, is not an option. If we don’t act, our local services and facilities will be dead and some sad souls will be buried without a funeral.