The Street That Cut Everything
- 16 May 2011
- From the section UK Politics
I'm going to take a risk. I know it won't make me popular. Indeed, I can already hear your reaction. Nevertheless, I'm going to make my request. Spare a thought for our politicians tonight. No, really.
Ponder how you'd do if you had to run not the whole country but just your own street. "Easy," I hear you cry and, "I certainly wouldn't make as much of a hash of it as they do."
Really? What if you couldn't run it on your own but you and your neighbours had to agree who was in charge? What if you didn't have a budget but each house had to decide how much to spend on what?
What if you had to organise and pay for the everyday things we take for granted: the bin collection, the recycling, the street lights; and the ones we all forget - those men from the council who deal with noisy neighbours or remove graffiti or clean up after people's dogs; and those things it's a bit more awkward to talk about - the money we receive to help us look after our children or care for the elderly or pay the rent? Still think it would be easy?
If so, come and join me on The Street That Cut Everything - to be shown tonight on BBC One at 21:00 BST.
The street in question is in Preston, but it could be pretty much any street in any town or city except for one thing. The residents of this street agreed to take part in a unique experiment.
They agreed to live without all the services their council tax pays for - all, that is, except for schools for their children and the emergency services - and to let the BBC film how they got along or, more often, how they did not.
At the beginning of this year I made a series of journeys from London to Lancashire - a short journey on the West Coast lines but a million miles from my day job.
I witnessed the efforts of John, who sells caravans, Jeanette the school teacher, Chris, who works on the railways, Tracie, a single mum who's training to be a social worker, Lily, a care assistant, and all the others who - though they didn't know it - had agreed to become politicians for a little while.
I watched as they argued about who should be in charge and, indeed, whether anyone needed to be in charge at all. I looked on as they debated the contents of a four-page memo exploring the options for which solvent they should use to remove graffiti, while steadfastly ignoring the request of a neighbour to talk about how she should replace the childcare she no longer got from the council.
I talked to people "over a brew" about why they didn't trust their fellow residents to take the right decisions.
As there are limits to the tolerance of people who had to get on with their everyday lives at the same time as worrying about where to put their rubbish, how to light their street and look after an elderly neighbour, and because there are limits to BBC filming budgets, this experiment lasted just six weeks.
And, just in case six weeks didn't really feel long enough, the production team presented them with additional challenges, such as the graffiti and noise nuisance.
The residents weren't paid for taking part, but they were given back their council tax money for those six weeks to spend - not on themselves but on the needs of their community.
The results I found fascinating. The programme offers a window on to the competing priorities and prejudices that politicians have to try to balance in an era of austerity when it is no longer possible to give everyone at least a little bit of what they want.
It reveals the resentments of those asked to pay for the benefits of others who they live alongside and those who have to argue for why they deserve to get what they've always received without the need to justify themselves.
It shows how, for some, graffiti on the walls can provoke fury, and noise outside their house a threat to come round with a crowbar - while for others it's barely noticed and, after all, "they're just kids who need something to do".
You might think that life wouldn't change that much if the council closed down. So, too, did many of the residents of The Street, as we dubbed their cul-de-sac. Soon they thought differently. Shift workers woke early to find their street in total darkness. The only light there was the red one on the top of one of the cameras that filmed the residents' comings and goings from before dawn until long after dusk.
Children emerged earlier than usual. They could no longer get the bus to school and had to be walked or driven by Mum or Dad. One elderly resident sorely missed her weekly council Dial-a-Ride service to pick her up and take her to the shops.
Uncollected rubbish began to pile up (sometimes in the strangest of places) along with other objects - thanks to an ever-thoughtful production team, who left mattresses and old fridges on the street to prompt a debate about how to legally dispose of them.
This led to, believe it or not, lengthy street meetings - a couple were held most weeks - and heated recriminations.
Those who fancied a trip to the local leisure centre to get away from the rubbish and the endless meetings and the cameras found their way barred: it's run by the council. So, too, the park…oh, and the local theatre and the library, of course. No wonder tempers began to fray once or twice.
Now, because this is more observational TV than heavyweight analysis, I am bracing myself for a bit of a row. During filming, I had a glimpse of what might be to come.
An enterprising local journalist obtained a photograph of a motley collection of local hounds being taken for a walk and filmed while leaving their doggy calling cards.
This provided no lesser an organ than The Daily Telegraph itself with the opportunity for a series of gruesome puns (it reported that I had "kicked up a stink" and "got up Tory noses") and offered a ministerial bag-carrier the chance to condemn what he called "an outrageous piece of scaremongering by the BBC", which "compromises their editorial integrity".
Given that that denunciation was based on a single photograph, the reaction to the full, 90-minute programme could be interesting.
I know that some will assert that the programme's title shows that the BBC has an anti-cuts agenda. After all, no street in Britain will cut everything. Some, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, will argue that, on the contrary, a made-for-TV "experiment" risks trivialising the very real impact of cuts on families up and down the land.
After all, a TV programme cannot - for the sake of education, let alone entertainment - take away services from those in greatest need and see what happens.
My reply to both is that this programme does not try to assess what cuts do or don't need to be made, nor how communities will cope with those that are. That is what the BBC's news coverage and current affairs programmes are there to do.
For me, The Street That Cut Everything captures why running things isn't as easy as people often say, whereas it is all too easy for them to condemn politicians - local as well as national - as stupid, self-interested or corrupt.
I'm well aware that this is probably not a good time to ask you to spare a thought for our leaders. After all, we've just had our first national referendum for more than 35 years in which one side told us to vote No to stop politicians lying and the other to vote Yes to stop them being lazy and corrupt.
Nevertheless, what better time could there be after so many ordinary citizens put themselves up for election or rejection? If we want better politicians to make better decisions, we would all do well to consider the difficult choices they have to take in the face of confusing and contradictory advice from those of us who elect them.
The Street That Cut Everything is on BBC One tonight at 21:00 BST.