Shaping debate on religion in public life.

As Local Authorities Shrink, Should Faith Groups Fill the Gaps?

11 Feb 2016

February and March for the bird watching community is the season of the year when we begin to observe territorial and nest building behaviour and the first signs of northward movement of migrant species. Those of us with an interest in local government will also recognize it as a time of manic and panic activity in the Town Halls, County Halls and City Halls of the land. Not so long ago managers of Council departments and voluntary groups relished the season as a time for “mopping up under-spend” to finance their pet projects before the end of the financial year. These days it feels more like a time of scarcity after a harsh winter, as the municipal songbirds tweet and re tweet in the forlorn hope that some kind soul has restocked the bird feeders in the garden with peanuts and fat balls. This year the activity of budget setting seems more frantic than ever, and as one moves north there is little sign of resources migrating in the same direction as swallows and swifts. Rather the talk is of cuts in services and redundancies, and the poorest authorities in the North of England, despite the talk about the “Northern Powerhouse”, are bearing the brunt of austerity. (A JRF study in 2013 suggested the North-South difference is £69 per head.)

One can only sympathise with the members and officers of our local councils, most of whom have a genuine sense of calling to serve and make a difference to their local communities, with relatively little reward – and represent a different species of politician from the Westminster elite.

Blackpool’s Council leader was taken aback at the bombshell decision of Central government  just before Christmas. “We had prepared a budget that saved £20m, which already included many difficult decisions but now we are going to have to find another £5m”.

A cabinet member of Preston City Council highlighted the long term trend when he said: “In 2010, Preston Council was getting almost £20m from the government in various grants. By 2020 it will be zero”.

Meanwhile Lancashire County Council plans to save £65m over the next two years, which would result in the loss of the equivalent of an estimated 367 full-time jobs. This would be in addition to the 1100 staff who have already left the authority since January 2014, and a likely further reduction of more than 500 by 2018.

With serious cuts inevitable Lancashire faces some real dilemmas and is required to consult the public over them all. Unpopular proposals include the closure of all the county museums and numerous libraries, the end of all subsidies for unprofitable bus services, reduction in welfare rights services, and the end of the Care and Urgent Needs Scheme which through partnership with the third sector provides emergency food, fuel and furniture for people facing destitution. The not-for-profit housing and homelessness sector are lobbying fiercely against the end of the Supporting People Fund, which over the last decade has enabled them to offer tenancies and support to many of the county’s most vulnerable people.

It is easy to get blinded by the figures, especially as punch and counterpunch are exchanged by politicians with their own points to prove. We already have a much reduced form of local government, as the former responsibilities for schools, the corporation trams and buses, the municipal water works, the police watch committee, council housing and much else have been stripped away since the 1970s. The process will now continue until a skeleton local state is all that will remain. Nonetheless, councils still have to fulfil their statutory duties. The government lists over 1,300 of them  from “considering caravan site licence applications” through “ensuring births and deaths are recorded correctly” to “being designated to be nearest relative of children and young people in Local Authority care”.

Much of this change is being promoted under the rubric of “Localism” and in principle there is much to be said in favour of local democratic control over local services, backed up with the raising of locally determined revenues. Philosophically this resonates well with the doctrine of subsidiarity, which has long been a key pillar of Catholic social teaching. Yet this new localism is a command to make bricks without straw, and while much control and regulation remains at the centre, the blame for failure can be pushed to the periphery. Furthermore, resources and need are usually found in inverse proportion to each other. Kensington and Chelsea has astronomic property values, high average income and few residents living in poverty. Meanwhile Blackpool, once noted for fresh air and fun and the occasional child-eating lion, is near the bottom of the league in all the deprivation indices.

Ninety years ago the councillors of Poplar recognized this problem, and demanded that the rich boroughs of London should share the burdens of local taxes more equitably across the whole city. Led by Christian Socialist George Lansbury their decision to defy central government by refusing to pay the precept for London wide services, led to a period of imprisonment and a popular and successful campaign for change. I doubt today’s local councillors would have the moral or political courage to do the same.

Some Christians and other people of faith or goodwill see this slimmed down local government as an opportunity to step up and fill the gaps in the welfare state. The recent Cinnamon Faith Action Audits claim that across the country collectively, local faith groups deliver 220,000 social action projects, serve 48 million beneficiaries and mobilise 2 million volunteers.

Could the emergence of food banks, furniture stores, night shelters and soup kitchens perhaps be a God given opportunity for mission? Obviously it would be immoral and un-Christian to stand by and let any of our fellow citizens starve. Yet before we jump on the bandwagon shouting “Hallelujah”, we should question whether motives are mixed by our need to be needed, our desire to look good, and our hope that charity will soon be translated into “bums on pews”.

Can we move beyond charity and the desire to do good to people in ways which trap them in a childlike dependency and keep us in control? Does the church, which in Northern localities of greatest need may already be weak and aging fast, have the capacity to provide a quality service, even if working in partnership with others across the sectors? Or should we place more effort on campaigning (and praying) together, seeking to build afresh a movement that draws on and reinvigorates the principles of the welfare state that William Temple and his colleagues struggled to establish?

Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

OUT NOW! Faith, Progressive Localism and the Hol(e)y Welfare Safety Net by Greg Smith. Click here to download the e-book >>

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