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Lord Beecham of Benwell. Official Portrait. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Cuts row recalls earlier era

Tweaked on 23 November at 6.30pm.

Campaigners in Newcastle have accused the city council of ‘doing the government’s dirty work’ by imposing another £23m of spending cuts. The council leader, Councillor Nick Kemp, has denied it.

Far better to have admitted the truth: that Newcastle, and councils throughout Britain, have been doing this dirty work for the government since at least 1975 when a Labour Environment Secretary, Tony Crosland, famously told local government: ‘The party’s over’.

Councils have been subjected to cuts and austerity – under various names – almost continuously ever since, under Conservative and Labour governments, and have been unable to do anything about it.

Councillor Kemp, heckled at this week’s council meeting, may have felt forced to deny that the council is doing the government’s ‘dirty work’ by imposing more cuts, as the Local Democracy Reporting Service put it in ChronicleLive.

He said: ‘I won’t be told we have not opposed government cuts. We are not responsible for long-term government funding. We are attempting our very best, working diligently across the council with officers, to protect those most vulnerable in the city and we will continue to do that.’

But as Councillor Kemp’s colleague Councillor Paul Frew, Newcastle’s cabinet member for finance, told ChronicleLive: ‘If we did not deliver that [the cuts] then the Conservatives would send their cronies up from London and run this council instead of us. That’s how it works.’

Labour radicals in local government found the same in that earlier age of austerity following Tony Crosland’s warning that ‘the party’s over’. The government always holds the whip hand.

Under the Thatcher government Councillor Ted Knight in Lambeth was surcharged £125,000 by the district auditor for refusing to set a legal budget and Councillor Derek Hatton in Liverpool was denounced by Neil Kinnock, Labour leader, at the party conference, for the consequences of his council’s defiance: ‘Hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers,’ as Kinnock described it.

Newcastle at that time responded by spending up to the legal limited on its priorities of housing, social services and education, toning down the rhetoric and doing its best to avoid confrontation.

The council leader then was Councillor (now Lord) Beecham, who went on to have a distinguished, though largely unrecognised, career which is recounted in a book about his life’s work published this week to which, to declare an interest, this author contributed a chapter.* He was, according to a tribute by Sir Keir Starmer, current leader of the Labour Party, ‘a giant of the Labour movement, and one of the most significant and influential British politicians of the last 50 years.’

Beecham stood down from his city council seat in Benwell only this year, having represented it since 1967. One issue he leaves behind is the vexed question of local government finance. When the whole of town hall funding, whether from government grants, council tax or retained business rates, either comes from or is controlled by Whitehall, how is it possible for genuine local government, as opposed to mere local administration, even to exist? Devolution is one attempt to find a way.

*Jeremy Beecham: A Quiet Altruist. Edited by Jon Gower Davies. Hexham. Ergo Press.