Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Austerity bites

I've already included some of these links in previous posts, but want to highlight them a little more. They are about some of the first casualties of the new regime of austerity in my neck of the woods, the borough of Lewisham. The specifics are primarily of local interest, but the generalities are the same across the UK, and below the fold I have some comments that relate to the more general issues.

Transpontine sums up the cuts here, along with details of some of the campaigns against the cuts, in Lewisham and Southwark. Deptford Visions and Hangbitch report on the protests in Lewisham. Jim reports the obscene contempt our directly elected mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, has for the protestors. 853 reports from neighbouring Greenwich.

Although not the most important of the cuts, one closest to my heart is the possible closure of Crofton Park Library. The library, built in 1905 and designed by the LCC's Emanuel Vincent Harris with money from by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who donated it to the people in perpetuity, is one of the architectural gems of SE4, as well as a wonderful resource for families, older people, unemployed people, and school students. Brockley Central reports here.

There are "consultation" meetings over the summer (when many parents, a key user group, are away). There is a petition here. Locally based children's author Andy Cullen makes the case well:
My wife and I use Crofton Park library regularly with our children. Often we take books home; sometimes we just stay for an hour in the lovely children's library and explore and read together. This beautiful local library continues to be a valued resource for local residents and schools. After many decades of service it still has a vital role as a people's university catering to all ages and types.
 Other libraries are under threat too, including Blackheath. Five altogether might close, out of 12.

Before I move on to the general issues, two local links for my local readers: Why are South Londoners the best bloggers? and Get a free glass of wine at the final screening in the Brockley Jack Film Club season. (The film club website, by the way, also features nice pics of lovely local folk at Blythe Hill and Brockley Max.)

There are three more general points I want to make about these things.
The first is the most obvious, that we have to gird our loins in our neighbourhoods to fight these sorts of cuts, to defend our services, and to get through hard times, and we will need all the inner resources we can find to do this.

The second is the role of the left in this. Will it focus on this task? Half the left seems to me to be so obsessed with the Iraq war, Gaza, and other iconic "anti-imperialist" issues as to be irrelevant in these sorts of everyday unspectacular struggles. The other half is more concerned to use people's anger as recruiting fodder for their sects than actually effectively winning any battles.

The third is the question of how to deal with Labour local governments imposing the cuts (especially bearing in mind the huge swing to Labour in boroughs like Lewisham and Greenwich, partly caused by working class people and public sector workers turning out en masse to ward off the Tory cuts). This is another back to the 1980s experience, harking back to the poll tax era, when Labour councils, to stay within the law, had little choice but to impose her hated and hateful tax on the poor. This was a final straw, in many ways, for the Labour Party's "organic" relationship with working class communities (which was probably one of Thatcher's goals). Should we make a clean break with the party, or is it still a lesser evil?


Peter Risdon said...

The library was built in 1905 and so pre-dates the welfare state and the vast expansion of taxation and public services we've seen post WWII. In other words, libraries can not just be preserved, but even built without a large state.

So this isn't really about cuts, it's about priorities. In 1905, the library was prioritised above things that now take precedence.

Rather than campaigning as though there were an infinite pot of money, why not say what should be prioritised lower than the library, but isn't at the moment?

bob said...

A very valid point Peter. It is interesting that in this post welfare state age (although I'm sure you'd dispute that term), lots of the institutions of the pre-welfare state age are returning: philanthropy, settlement houses, churches, self-help. Some of that is good; some is bad (I am writing a post on the big lunch and the big society, which I may finish in the next few days...)

I don't see the library as the most urgent priority for public spend. But I do see it as a sound investment even by a much less radical calculus than I would myself subscribe to. For example, when I am in Crofton Park library, I see old people reading the papers, who if they couldn't access the library would probably either be utterly isolated at home or accessing some kind of social care that would be more expensive; I see loads of teenagers, mainly black, using the computers to work on their school work, who I don't know how they would access computers without this facility (they are generally well behaved and appear very motivated, so I won't say they'd be out causing mischief on the road if there was no library, but it is worth noting that there is no youth club anywhere near); I see huge numbers of young kids with their parents, of all income groups, as well as groups from primary schools, and without the library many of them would have much less access to mainstream culture and to the world of books. Surely these are all worth paying for?

I also question the extent to which there is a real need to cut budgets so dramatically.

(Incidentally, I'm not 100% sure about the history of the library and of the relationship between Carnegie and the LCC. "Brockley" is listed here among the Carnegie libraries in the UK which I assume is Crofton Park.)

Peter Risdon said...

Personally, I feel libraries should be right at the top of the list of priorities and that's especially so somewhere like Crofton Park (which I'm familiar with, having had the pleasure of living in your neck of the woods).

I think post-welfare is a little strong when we're seeing nothing more than a decrease in the rate of expansion of the state. It's still expanding.

(I tried looking up the history of the library, with less success than you, so thanks for that link. I'm also more squeamish about consigning such things to the realm of private philanthropy than you might think. That's why I suggest we might consider priorities rather than just call for spending that takes too little account of our means.)