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In Britain, austerity Is changing everything
[PRESCOT, England] A walk through this modest town in the northwest of England amounts to a tour of the casualties of Britain's age of austerity.
The old library building has been sold and refashioned into a luxury home. The leisure center has been razed, eliminating the public swimming pool. The local museum has receded into town history. The police station has been shuttered.
Now, as the local government desperately seeks to turn assets into cash, Browns Field, a lush park in the center of town, may be doomed, too. At a meeting in November, the council included it on a list of 17 parks to sell to developers.
"Everybody uses this park," says Jackie Lewis, who raised two children in a red brick house a block away. "This is probably our last piece of community space. It's been one after the other. You just end up despondent."
In the eight years since London began sharply curtailing support for local governments, the borough of Knowsley, a bedroom community of Liverpool, has seen its budget cut roughly in half. Liverpool itself has suffered a nearly two-thirds cut in funding from the national government — its largest source of discretionary revenue. Communities in much of Britain have seen similar losses.
The protracted campaign of budget cutting, started in 2010 by a government led by the Conservative Party, has delivered a monumental shift in British life. A wave of austerity has yielded a country that has grown accustomed to living with less, even as many measures of social well-being — crime rates, opioid addiction, infant mortality, childhood poverty and homelessness — point to a deteriorating quality of life.
When Lewis and her husband bought their home a quarter-century ago, Prescot had a comforting village feel. Now, core government relief programs are being cut and public facilities eliminated, adding pressure to public services like police and fire departments, just as they, too, grapple with diminished funding.
By 2020, reductions already set in motion will produce cuts to British social welfare programs exceeding US$36 billion a year compared with a decade earlier, or more than US$900 annually for every working age person in the country, according to a report from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University. In Liverpool, the losses will reach US$1,200 a year per working-age person, the study says.
"The government has created destitution," says Barry Kushner, a Labour Party councilman in Liverpool and the Cabinet member for children's services. "Austerity has had nothing to do with economics. It was about getting out from under welfare. It's about politics abandoning vulnerable people."
Conservative Party leaders say that austerity has been driven by nothing more grandiose than arithmetic.
"It's the ideology of two plus two equals four," says Daniel Finkelstein, a Conservative member of the upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords, and a columnist for The Times of London. "It wasn't driven by a desire to reduce spending on public services. It was driven by the fact that we had a vast deficit problem, and the debt was going to keep growing."
Austerity has refashioned British society, making it less like the rest of Western Europe and more like the United States, where millions lack health care and job loss can set off a precipitous plunge in fortunes.
Britain reacted to the trauma of World War II by forging its own welfare state. The United States has steadily reduced benefits since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. Britain rolled back its programs in the same era, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. Still, its safety net remained robust by world standards.
Then came the global financial panic of 2008 — the most crippling economic downturn since the Great Depression. Britain's turn from its welfare state in the face of yawning budget deficits is a conspicuous indicator that the world has been refashioned by the crisis.
As the global economy now negotiates a wrenching transition — with itinerant jobs replacing full-time positions and robots substituting for human labor — Britain's experience provokes doubts about the durability of the traditional welfare model. As Western-style capitalism confronts profound questions about economic justice, vulnerable people appear to be growing more so.
Conservative Party leaders initially sold budget cuts as a virtue, ushering in what they called the Big Society. Diminish the role of a bloated government bureaucracy, they contended, and grass-roots organizations, charities and private companies would step to the fore, reviving communities and delivering public services more efficiently.
To a degree, a spirit of voluntarism materialized. At public libraries, volunteers now outnumber paid staff. In struggling communities, residents have formed food banks while distributing hand-me-down school uniforms. But to many in Britain, this is akin to setting your house on fire and then reveling in the community spirit as neighbors come running to help extinguish the blaze.
Britain has not endured austerity to the same degree as Greece, where cutbacks were swift and draconian. Instead, British austerity has been a slow bleed, though the cumulative toll has been substantial.
Local governments have suffered a roughly one-fifth plunge in revenue since 2010, after adding taxes they collect, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London.
Nationally, spending on police forces has dropped 17 per cent since 2010, while the number of police officers has dropped 14 per cent, according to an analysis by the Institute for Government. Spending on road maintenance has shrunk more than one-fourth, while support for libraries has fallen nearly a third.
The national court system has eliminated nearly a third of its staff. Spending on prisons has plunged more than a fifth, with violent assaults on prison guards more than doubling. The number of elderly people receiving government-furnished care that enables them to remain in their homes has fallen by roughly a quarter.
In an alternate reality, this nasty stretch of history might now be ending. Austerity measures were imposed in the name of eliminating budget deficits, and last year Britain finally produced a modest budget surplus.
But the reality is dominated by worries that Britain's pending departure from the European Union will depress growth for years to come. Though every major economy on Earth has been expanding lately, Britain's barely grew during the first three months of 2018. The unemployment rate sits just above 4 per cent — its lowest level since 1975 — yet most wages remain lower than a decade ago, after accounting for rising prices.
"It's clearly an attack on our class," says Dave Kelly, a retired bricklayer in the town of Kirkby, on the outskirts of Liverpool, where many factories sit empty. "It's an attack on who we are. The whole fabric of society is breaking down."
An Unlikely Villain
London makes the aggregate cuts, while leaving to local politicians the messy work of allocating the pain. People train their fury on the Knowsley Council, and especially on the man who was until recently its leader, Andy Moorhead. They accuse him of hastily concocting plans to sell Browns Field without community consultation.
Mr Moorhead, 62, seems an unlikely figure for the role of austerity villain. A career member of the Labour Party, he has the everyday bearing of a genial denizen of the corner pub.
"I didn't become a politician to take things off of people," he says. "But you've got the reality to deal with."
The reality is that London is phasing out grants to local governments, forcing councils to live on housing and business taxes.
"Austerity is here to stay," says Jonathan Davies, director of the Center for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. "What we might now see over the next two years is a wave of bankruptcies, like Detroit."
To Mr Moorhead, the equation ends with the imperative to sell valuable land, yielding an endowment to protect remaining parks and services.
In early May, the local Labour Party ousted Mr Moorhead as council leader amid mounting anger over the planned sale of parks.