Life for many of Britain’s local councils is not easy at the moment. Cuts to local government funding have frustrated and limited their important work and, almost without exception, they are feeling the impact of under-specified and seemingly gratuitous government cuts.
My hometown of Eastbourne is just one example, of many, feeling the impact of austerity. If you have ever watched Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, you will be familiar with the setting of the movie: Eastbourne. The town lives a pretty existence on the south coast and has every attribute of a British seaside resort. Unfortunately, like most towns in Britain, Eastbourne is feeling the pressure of cutbacks to services and local councils.
For now, the hotels stretched along the coastline and ice cream shops dotted throughout the town remain open for business. However, after seven years of austerity, cracks are beginning to form on the face of this idyllic town.
Eastbourne is an area that is developing and modernising. Its permanent residents are growing in number, and lowering in age, as young professionals are pushed out of Brighton and London by increasing house prices. It is presently going through a £44 million redevelopment to several of its major buildings, including its theatres and its tennis courts where every year thousands travel to watch prestigious tennis stars in their preparation for Wimbledon.
As David Tutt, the Liberal Democrat head of the local council (who is affectionately known as ‘Tutty’ by his colleagues), puts it: “initially it is probably fair to say that that [the government cut] wasn’t too painful,” and that “the community in Eastbourne hasn’t suffered as much as many parts of the country”.
He is right about this. Eastbourne’s Liberal Democrat run Borough Council—unlike many others around the country—was prepared for the initial levels of government cuts. They downsized their council operations moving to what Tutt calls an “agile” workplace. Four floors of offices became one, and that one was later shared with the local council from Lewes. This was an inconvenience to the council but, like so many others around Britain, they had to quickly adapt to a life of local government limitation.
They also invested greatly in areas that could bring them capital reserves to survive the harsh reality that is austerity. They pumped funding into a housing company, putting solar panels on their council houses, and an emergency call-out service that provided the council with a steady funding stream.
These preparations meant that, as Tutt proudly points out to me, despite a 60 per cent cut in government funding, Eastbourne council is one of few in Britain not to have cut front- line services. This is not to say that Eastbourne has not already suffered. The County Council, which looks after areas such as social care, has already delivered huge financial cuts to Eastbourne. Many of these have been focussed on adult social care leading to a story that has been seen all around Britain—the vulnerable bearing the brunt of government cuts.
However, there is a widening consensus that cuts are going to have to be made in order to accommodate the tightening demands of central government. Stephen Lloyd, the dedicated ex-MP, and now electoral candidate, who describes himself as a “business-wing liberal”, tells me that “next year the council is going to have to find ways…to cope with the quite savage cuts”. Stephen is incredibly passionate about Eastbourne to the point of swearing through our interview about various cuts, which he sees as being shameful.
Even after careful planning, investment and deliberation, Eastbourne is now almost certain to suffer from cuts to frontline services. Such is the intensity of government cuts to local councils. Those who work in Eastbourne council have not been given the chance to maintain their record. From what I have heard, these cuts are so large and continuous that there is no opportunity to adapt to them, meaning many councils face possible extinction. These cutbacks almost seem to be a punishment rather than a method of gaining greater efficiency.
This is not an situation that the council has settled upon lightly. They attempted to limit the scale of cuts to services through the sale of some assets. The idea was to sell to 3,000 acres of council owned farmland—which just happens to be some of the most beautiful stretches of downs surrounding Beachy Head. This land is presently let to local farmers and brings in a small profit. Tutt says that he thought the sale would bring around £20 million into the council capital account. But, as even Stephen Lloyd admits, this plan turned into a “fiasco”.
Local residents, outraged at the idea and fearing that this Downland would be developed and spoilt, rose up against the concept. The council suddenly found itself on the end of a local campaign to ‘Keep Our Downs Public’. There were marches and a petition was produced which was signed by over 10,000 people. Eastbourne has a population of around 100,000 meaning that ten per cent of the populous signed it.
To put this into perspective, the post-Brexit petition, which has the greatest number of signatories nationally, had a level of support of around six per cent. If you remember the passion, anger and dedication which that petition created, then you can imagine the impact of the Eastbourne petition. The local council, often bemoaning the lack of interest in local politics, was suddenly faced with real popular opposition. Unlike the Brexit petition, the signatories were victorious.
One of those who participated in the campaign was Green MEP Keith Taylor who, despite now being based in Brussels, has a great loyalty to Sussex. This land is made up of “beautiful areas…they should be for the use of the community,” he said. “Just to sell it off is disgraceful”. The Downlands near Eastbourne are, as Taylor says, a special part of the countryside. Rudyard Kipling once described these rolling hills as “our blunt, bow-headed whale-backed Downs”.
We cannot be sure if this was a positive or negative description but they clearly made an impact upon the author, as they do with everyone who walks along them. There is such a sense of common ownership—that is unique to this area—that the council’s plan to sell them seems almost naive. We must remember, however, that desperation can lead to poor decision making.
This issue went so far that Tutt almost considered a local referendum but, having weighed costs, elected to send out a voting slip in an issue of the council magazine. He made it clear on the ballot, and makes it clear to me in our interview, that this was a choice between selling the land or facing cuts to local services.
It is not clear how great the impact of the sale would have been upon services, with some reporting that this money was instead intended to fund the town’s new development projects. Whether there was a Project Fear element to Tutt’s argument or not, the vote came in convincingly to stop the Downlands sale and the council backed down.
This was the council’s first major dice with unpopular opinion and, when services do begin to be cut, it will not be the last. As government funding decreases even more, as David Tutt expects it will, the council is going to be faced with even tougher decisions. They cannot please everyone, despite their evident best efforts, and will be forced to withdraw money. When the government makes a cut, they may not be personally familiar with its impact. When David Tutt and the rest of the council make a cut, they know the individuals that it will impact upon.
They know that passionate, committed people will have vital funding removed and that others will suffer—this personal knowledge makes such decisions so much harder. The Downland sale sets a nerve-wracking precedent for future controversies.
One Eastbourne establishment that is going to face considerable cuts is the Towner Art Gallery, a cultural highlight of Eastbourne. The Gallery houses a number of prominent artists—especially a large collection of works by Eric Ravilious, whose work can be seen throughout this article— and runs a number of outreach programs to educate locals and tourists about art. I have personal ties to this gallery and this is an issue close to my heart. The impact of austerity should not be reduced to mere figures.
Tutt says that when he set up a trust for Towner he “made a promise that we would keep the funding level at the same level for four years”, and he has kept to that promise. This is true, but it still seems that this move will cause a similar type of controversy that the council previously experienced during the Downland campaign.
The council has set out a possible plan for the next budget, which would cut Towner’s £600,000 council funding by 50 per cent. This is about a one third cut in its overall funding and would have a major impact on Towner’s ability both to operate its exhibitions and the educational services that it provides.
The loss of Towner’s work would leave a serious artistic and cultural deficit in Eastbourne. Few want this to happen, least of all the team at Towner who see the importance of the gallery on a daily basis, but with more cuts comes a greater existential threat to those institutions that draw people to Eastbourne. Some may question why the council is looking to cut frontline services rather than raising council taxes. I ask Tutt about this, but he is clear that this is not a viable alternative.
“For every one per cent we put up council tax, we only get £80,000 in terms of revenue” he tells me. He says that there is a misconception about local council wealth. Many other organisations, such as the County Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner, draw money down from council tax yet local residents still think that the local council is, in Tutt’s words, “rolling in money”.
He told one of the local newspapers that, after the Downland debate, “only one person has so far suggested any other alternative”. The criticism of local councils is seen all over the country, but the general population seem not to understand that these councils have been forced into the most difficult of situations with little chance for a positive outcome.
There are legitimate complaints that can be raised against the council, especially their plan to carry out a mass redevelopment at a time of economic insecurity, but it seems that they have managed to handle these cuts well so far. Especially when compared to the County Council, Eastbourne has been saved from the worst ravages of austerity because of sensible planning and decision making.
Tutt says that, at a recent District Council Networks Conference, the leader of Ashfield council said to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, “before you leave here I want you to know that because of the money you’ve just taken away from us […] I don’t know that our council is going to be able to continue to exist”.
You can hear the desperation in the council leader’s voice when she talks about the possible extinction of her council. Councils are frustrated that those in power are not listening to them. Their story is not one that is in the national conversation.
Whilst hours are, rightly, spent discussing school cuts, David Tutt and his local and national colleagues are rarely called upon to explain why this austerity is so fundamentally damaging. The government has been able to make huge cuts without genuine scrutiny because the relationship between local and central government is either too complicated, or too individualised, to be covered in the media.
But Eastbourne Borough Council, like its County Council neighbour, is going to be hit if Government cuts stay at this level. Most people who I talked to, despite mentioning various complaints about the council, said that they do not envy Tutt’s job. Stephen Lloyd tells me that he “takes his hat off to David”, and Keith Taylor says that, although he opposes some of the actions the council has taken, he feels sympathy for them because of the impact of funding cuts.
All the people that I have talked to care deeply about Eastbourne. They are passionate about the town and its people. They work assiduously to ensure that Eastbourne is on the right track. But they are being gravely limited by the scale and severity of cuts that are being inflicted by the central government.
As is the case with many councils, there was some fat on council budgets, which may have been useful to cut. Tutt even admits to me that he was in favour of the original cuts. However, that fat has now been skimmed off. Councils have increased in efficiency, but now the government is demanding more. One has the impression that the Conservative administration no longer cares about practical efficiency but the ideological limitation of local government.
Eastbourne is just one chapter in the story of government cuts to local funding. For this council, the service cuts may just be beginning, but other councils around Britain are now questioning their very ability to exist.
There seems to be no sense that these cuts to local government will end. David Tutt, and his many colleagues around the nation, are preparing for yet another difficult year.
We cannot let local government die in the shadows. If local government matters, it cannot suffer the humiliation of being treated like a poor relation. Eastbourne’s future may still be bright but, with every additional funding cut, darkness draws a little closer.