Cuts too far and too fast is not the answer

There was a coalition government in the 1930s. It compounded the problems of a world-wide recession by cutting spending too far and too fast.

East Lancashire was one the areas worst hit.

But in one respect the thirties’ coalition government was more thoughtful than the present one. It recognised that at such a time community facilities were of even greater importance than in normal times. So, for example, public libraries were kept open, and became a haven for the unemployed.

It’s a pity that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in our borough have forgotten this, if they ever knew it.

Now, our library service is threatened; and worse still, Shadsworth Leisure Centre, and four Community Centres (Little Harwood, Shadsworth, Ivy Street, and Sudellside) are all earmarked for early closure. This is decision day.

“This is about sorting out the mess the Labour Government left,” says council leader Mike Lee.

By this ‘mess’ I take Coun Lee to mean the levels of public spending inherited from the Labour Government.

Much of this has gone on crucial improvements to key services like Children’s Sure Start Centres, to every school in the borough, to our health service, the new Wainwright Bridge and much else – as well as increased central government grant to the borough.

If Coun Lee had at the time protested about any of this spending, his recent comments would have consistency and credibility. But the reverse was the case – as it was with the then Conservative Opposition who either endorsed our spending plans right up to late 2008, or said that they were ‘tough’.

Cuts on this scale were never spelt out before the election, either locally or nationally. They could and should have been. The only thing that has changed is that the budget deficit is £10 billion less than estimated before election.

Nor is there any good reason for cuts of this scale. It’s not just me or my party saying that.

The Financial Times’ leading economic commentator Samuel Brittan described the current approach as an ‘unnecessary austerity due to a misguided macro-economic policy’ (June 18).

But even if one accepts that cuts on this scale are needed (which I do not) this is not the way to do it.

The current leadership used to claim concern for the more deprived wards of the borough. Why then pick on precisely those areas – to deprive them of their much-needed community facilities?

The money to be saved is paltry – my guess is only around £100,000, after taking account of redundancy costs. And there will be other costs, such as maintenance on unused buildings.

My advice to the local leadership is to go to the library, and take out the ‘General Theory’ of the economist (and proper Liberal) John Maynard Keynes.

He demolished the cut-and-cut again philosophy of that coalition – and what he said then, as Mr Brittan pointed out, is still the best advice today.

But there will be other costs as well. If closed these buildings will lie idle.

Maintenance is always higher on unused buildings; it will be a miracle if they do not become a target for vandals, especially as much of their good work has been in keeping youngsters off the streets with something to do.

And the timescale is gratuitous – with local communities to be given just three months to sort out, if they can, alternative funding.

Many in these areas do not have cars, so can’t travel easily say to Darwen Leisure Centre.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

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