Unprecedented snowfall and the accompanying chatter of climate change marked the start of Advent last week. At a time when Christians celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, in Britain this year there can be no such optimism. The bleak weather conditions merely provide a grimly apposite backdrop to a far greater cause for concern brought about by the government cuts that are set to decimate communities across the country for generations to come.
At a public meeting last week in Camden town hall in London, the council cabinet met to discuss the proposals drafted in response to central government’s budgetary reductions. The same discussions will be taking place in town halls across the country in the coming weeks: how to balance the books in the face of unprecedented cuts to spending and investment. The figures are staggering. With a 26% reduction in central government support, Camden faces an £80-100million budget gap and a £400million investment gap. Never in Britain’s history have such cuts been imposed on local councils by central government.
The list of affected services read out at the meeting read like a list of the bereaved after an appalling calamity. Cuts will decrease street cleaning, street lighting, library services, neighbourhood safety teams, council offices, council staff, housing maintenance, community centres; the list went on, and on. Despite much management-speak of ‘moving forward’, ‘efficiencies’, ‘innovation’ and ‘streamlining’, the unambiguous message was that these chilling cuts are real and severe, and anyone who may find consolation in the naïve assumption that they will not be affected is sorely mistaken. They are, to paraphrase the representative from the National Union of Teachers, ‘heartbreaking’.
The scale of these cuts might be unparalleled today, but the fallout will last generations. The longevity of their impact is what makes them such a bitter pill to swallow – while they affect us all in the present, the greatest impact is going to be borne by the young; not just the reviled ‘youth of today’, nor even by primary school children, but by infants and the unborn.
Standing in the frontline of this assault on public services (though many are too young to be aware of their vulnerable position) are the youngest members of our society. While we fight costly wars overseas and prop up a banking system that will doubtless award its members handsome Christmas bonuses, out-of-school play services for young children, support for city farms, voluntary children’s services, and financial provision for nursery care, will be cut. Camden has also announced that is to close two of its eleven childcare centres, affecting the lives of hundreds of families, workers, carers, and children from the age of nought to five and contradicting the advice of the government’s own advisor, Frank Field, whose report published last week emphasised the need for investment in nursery care to combat child poverty and inequality. This is not only Camden’s problem: the same measures will be repeated across the country. It is a national problem and a moral disgrace.
Polly Shields, the chair of governors for the award-winning Thomas Coram Nursery, one of eleven children’s centres facing the threat of closure, defended the case for early years intervention by highlighting how investment in children at a young age is proven to reduce costs over the long term – it is less expensive and more efficient. The cold calculation of a bureaucrat’s hand deleting numbers on a spread sheet does not deliver savings – it is, as Ms Shields stated, a false economy.
Hundreds of people, from toddlers to pensioners, had gathered outside Camden town hall on a bitterly cold evening to vent their indignation, in what the leader of the council, Ali Nasim, referred to as an ‘unprecedented demonstration’ aimed at the council. It might not have ranked in size with the recent student protests, but it shared a common and conspicuous theme – the young people of this country are rightfully and increasingly embittered, not only by appearing to be the ones facing the brunt of these cuts, but also that these cuts are being imposed on them by a generation that enjoyed unequalled economic prosperity and state provision throughout much of their lifetime.
Consequently, a generational divide is emerging in Britain that is gnawing away at the fabric of society. The young today have very little to be optimistic about. Whether it is at a local level with the fallout from budget cuts affecting their schools, youth centres, and nurseries or global issues such as the financial crisis brought about by the recklessness lending of bankers or the environmental ruin caused by decades of over-consumption, the young are increasingly blaming those who have squandered their chances of creating an equitable, caring and sustainable society.
If such a society is ever to exist, and it certainly is not to be found in the fantastical realm of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, then Britain’s young and unborn are faced with the stark reality and gargantuan task of having to do very much more with very much less. The generations before them not only have failed in their responsibilities, but also, by cutting nursery care, provision for schools and funding for higher education, have cruelly handicapped the life chances of the young.
At the same time that David Cameron and Nick Clegg acknowledge that ‘pre-school years are the critical ones in terms of promoting a fairer and more mobile society [and] agree that inter-generational poverty needs to be given as much weight as static, income-based measures’, their policies are causing nurseries to close and students to pay a high price for their education. The government must wake up to reality and understand that their response to the inevitable and growing public resistance by enlisting the bullying and intimidatory tactics of a police force whose own ranks will soon be cut, will only further inflame the resentment.