'No room for sentimentality' as councils part with treasures to cope with Whitehall cuts
London Letter:For more than a century, a horse-drawn carriage commissioned by wealthy Newcastle businessman Henry Shadforth carried the city’s lord mayors through the streets on official occasions.
Coachmen were loaned for years by Scottish and Newcastle, a brewery famous for its brown ales. Later, another brewing family, the Beamishes, supplied dray horses.
Today, the carriage, made by Caleb Agnas, is to be put on the market – prompting clever headlines in the northeast of England press about “one careful owner”.
However, it illustrates a wider point: the difficulties now facing local authorities in England as they struggle to cope with Whitehall cutbacks.
Newcastle City Council has sold off heirlooms before, opting to auction £270,000 worth of art on eBay last year. Meanwhile, Bolton City Council sold seven pieces, including two Picasso etchings.
Vowing “to put people before objects”, the leader of Newcastle council, Nick Forbes, said there was “no room for sentimentality”.
In London, Tower Hamlets has decided, in the face of much controversy, to sell a Henry Moore sculpture, Draped Seated Woman, which could fetch up to £20 million.
Moore, who died in 1986, sold the piece cheaply to Tower Hamlets on the understanding that it would be placed permanently on display in public in the deprived borough. That promise, however, has not been honoured for years, since the council, which has to make £100 million in cuts by 2015, loaned it to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the last 15 years.
In a review of the state of council funding, PricewaterhouseCoopers said the majority coped reasonably well with the first round of cuts last year, a view not shared by all.
Even still, 145,000 jobs were lost – 5 per cent of the total employed, largely through recruitment freezes, early retirements and voluntary redundancies. Others went further. Shropshire County Council sent dismissal letters to its 6,500 staff, telling them they would be rehired the following day only if they accepted a 5 per cent pay cut.
Future cuts will be even harder. Compulsory redundancies are set to increase, while the compensation on offer to departing workers is to fall sharply.
Late last month Birmingham City Council warned that 1,000 staff were to be fired as it bids to cut £600 million from its budget over the next five years. Saying that it is “the end of local government as we know it”, the council’s Labour leader, Sir Albert Bore, said some services would have to be eliminated: “We have got to the end of the road when it comes to salami-slicing. We will now have to either stop or decommission services. I’m not looking forward to this, but it is what we have got to do.”
Meanwhile, full-time posts are being replaced by part-time ones, while one council believes it will cut its numbers from 7,500 to 2,500 by 2014 by bringing in private contractors.
Faced with local opposition, some Conservative-controlled councils insist savings can be made by doing things better, by co-operating, by making “back-office” savings. Equally nearly every council spoken to privately by PwC believes it will have to cut spending on the elderly and disabled over the next two years.
“Spending cuts are larger, absolutely and proportionally, in urban and poorer parts of England than in more affluent rural and suburban districts.
“It also means cuts are larger in London and the northern regions of England than in southern regions,” said the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies in a recent review.
The councils are facing difficulties on two fronts: the grants offered by Whitehall have fallen on average by 13 per cent since 2009/2010, while income from fees has dropped 2.1 per cent.
The situation in Wales is bleak, too, but cutbacks have been shared more equally between poorer and richer districts. The IFS warns that Welsh councils will have even less to spend in eight years.
However, amid the gloom, there is some light. In Blackheath in London, volunteers took over the running of a library after Lewisham council closed five of them.