Hatchet job…

Hatchet II by Chealion

Hatchet II by Chealion

The new ConDem coalition government has recently announced a whole raft of cuts and restructuring which promises to radically change our public services. Whether this is for the better, I for one, think not; most likely they will do considerable damage to our public services at a time when we need to be investing in them.

Looking at what Nottinghamshire and Suffolk have done is shocking. Nottinghamshire have decided to go for soft targets and decimate their conservation team, insisting that advice and services can adequately be sought from elsewhere whilst Suffolk have taken the view that pretty much all council services can be outsourced. This does not bode well for the heritage sector in particular. A lot of heritage services are already provided by the private, charity and volunteer sectors but this is dependent on local knowledge and expertise, something that is much harder to find amongst outsourced service providers. Yes, a cleaning company is a cleaning company and caterers are caterers but having an in depth knowledge of local heritage assets, how to manage and maintain them and what constraints to put on developers through PPS5 are activities which can only be provided by a dedicated local heritage team. And if advice on eg Listed Buildings is to be outsourced, is this going to fall into the lap of English Heritage who have themselves been losing skills and are becoming more of a commissioning body?

So, if local government heritage provision is to be decimated, what of the national bodies? Well, 192 so-called quangos are being axed or otherwise restructured.  From a heritage standpoint those being dismantled or are under threat include:

  • Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites
  • Advisory Committee on National Historic Ships
  • Advisory Council on Libraries
  • Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment
  • Museums, Libraries and Archives Council
  • Inland Waterways Advisory Council
  • Railway Heritage Committee

Whilst the functions of some of these groups will be transferred, it ought to be pointed out that the advisory committees, being staffed by volunteers anyway, did not actually cost very much to run. So headline grabbing quango culling turns out to be largely spin in some cases whilst in others, notably libraries and museums, gaps will be left, especially with local authorities looking to cut funding for local libraries and museums services.

And other aspects of the cuts will also have a detrimental effect on the heritage sector. In the light of the Browne report, Vince cable has been quick to argue for a cap of around £7K per year for university education, a bit of a change from the Liberal election manifesto promise. Unless suitable measures are put in place, the higher education ‘market’ is likely to become solely about earning potential and financial factors with less emphasis on subject matter. Whilst business degrees may facilitate city jobs and higher pay thus arguably justifying higher fees, £21K for an undergraduate archaeology degree when earning potential in the heritage sector is pitifully low (especially when compared to other sectors) is undoubtedly going to put prosepctive students off.

Unfortunately, the bigger picture is even worse. Whilst heritage may suffer, this pales when compared to health and social care and the broader education sector. After an embarrasing u-turn on free school milk just when the dark shadow of Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher had almost faded (many people being too young to remember those days), there came the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme, depriving many deprived schools of the funding they are desperate for in turn leading to legal action against the government from some local authorities. The bills due for cancelling contracts running into the millions, money which could have gone into the school system. And to argue that Labour had poured money solely into Labour constituencies was simply abhorrent;  Labour had poured money into schools in need, which tend not to be those in well-off (Tory voting) areas.

Then there is the axing of Primary Healthcare Trusts to give budgets directly to GPs. As if GPs are in any kind of position to understand bigger healthcare issues or manage such large budgets. This plus ongoing cuts from the days of Labour combined with ridiculous political populist posturing threatens the provision of NHS services; the idea that, for example, all hospitals should provide single sex wards on reduced budgets and be fined if they don’t fails to take into account this will mean doubling the number of open wards, dramatically increasing costs.

And as for care for the vulnerable, the young and the elderly, well the Big Society is to step in there presumably with all those volunteers the Tories have been talking about picking up the slack from the outsourced and otherwise hobbled public service bodies. This may work in rural Surrey or Oxfordshire where there are enough well to do folks with time on their hands but in areas where people are struggling with their own lives, it is unlikely to provide a real alternative to properly resourced public service provision.

So, grim times ahead then. The Big Society was indeed a Big Scam to dump public services onto the volunteer and charity sectors. And if you’re a public sector worker, not like you’ll even get your pension. Oh, and we’ll all have to work longer (apart from the wealthy folks who can retire early and keep the golfing industry going).  Not to mention those pesky benefits cheats who will now be chased by more hit squads (costing how much…?) and banned from receiving benefits if caught three times (which applies to no-one to date, so no actual savings there then, just more spin). And at the same time, bankers benefits are back up to normal (ie ridiculously, incredibly high rates) and the majority of the Tory party still use offshore tax havens and expensive accountants to ‘minimise their tax exposure’ (aka cheat the system). A combination of Victorian work ethic (ie starve them back to work as Digby Jones says), minimal wages and Thatcherite labour policies (no pay rises and don’t even think about strike action; there’s a recession dontch know!) and the continuation of tax loopholes (if you can afford a decent accountant) should keep society on the straight and narrow… I think not.