Hart of the Matter
The elephant in the room at the moment goes by the name of Cuts. Everyone knows there are going to be extremely deep and serious cuts in all forms of public expenditure as soon as this little sideshow called an election is out of the way.
Nobody wants to face up to this. The electorate didn’t like it when the Tories started talking about ‘an age of austerity’ last year, according to the polls, and consequently none of the parties wants to own up to what they are planning.
There are some pretty fat targets around for the slashers to aim at once they get started, but they won’t be popular with everyone.
However, one person’s cut in services is another person’s cut in waste. It all depends on your point of view.
Councils know the axe will fall very heavily on them from the next Government, whatever its political colour. It stands to reason that whoever wins this election is going to be deeply unpopular pretty soon, and they will take every opportunity they can to shift that unpopularity onto someone else. After all, it’s only five years to the next election, and, if it’s a hung parliament, history tells us it might be a lot less than that – maybe only a matter of months.
This may be a long climb out of recession, but don’t think for one minute that the old British disease of short-termism won’t afflict whoever gains power. Once gained, they don’t like to let go of it.
So you can reckon they will cut the cash they give to councils massively so they can then blame them for failing to provide the everyday services we need, like education, waste collection, social care, etc. The mantra will be, as Owl so memorably put it: “No blame can be attached to me.”
So councils are already thinking about how they are going to cope with this tidal wave of destruction that is about to cascade in on them.
St Edmundsbury held their cabinet meeting in Haverhill on Wednesday. They like to bring it here once a year. The chairs put out for the public, of course, remained stubbornly empty. I wonder if that will be the case next time they come here.
By then, people may well be feeling the pinch in very sensitive areas, and there is nothing as effective as that for getting people to attend meetings.
I was interested to hear there has been some work done on assessing the value of the council’s cultural services – sport and the arts, basically. Are they worth spending any money on at a time like this?
Well, the council is, of course, in the middle of a hugely expensive project to create a new venue in Bury St Edmunds – they were talking on Wednesday about the detailed work they had been doing trying out all sorts of different types of seating for it.
This might seem like a subject for mockery, but actually it’s quite wise, in the light of the utter disaster achieved in the Theatre Royal’s refurbishment, where the new level of discomfort afforded must have turned away a lot more patrons than just me.
You don’t have to have a long memory to recall the excellent job which St Edmundsbury made of converting Haverhill Town Hall into a wonderful arts centre and then the complete pig’s ear they made of running it, until Haverhill Town Council had to take it over to rescue it from being closed more often than it was open.
I would hope most people see the arts centre now as one of the town’s greatest triumphs, along with the newly-refurbished leisure centre. But it is a salutary lesson in how costly sport and arts provision can be, not so much in terms of capital to create facilities, but in the ongoing costs of keeping them running successfully.
Unfortunately that is the area where axes will fall all across the country. I am afraid we shall see small professional performance companies going to the wall at a great rate as their main customers start cutting back on tour bookings, street theatre and school projects.
It will need people of rare vision to choose their cultural services above the many other calls on their strapped purses over the next few years. And yet, if they don’t, the predicted misery will be greater than otherwise.
Those who call for change, transparency and the triumph of true democracy in this country, should remember that it was during the first flowering of a true democracy, in Athens, that the theatre was invented.