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Archives for July 2010

Will quick cuts mean a 2012 "summer of fun"

Patrick Burns | 09:51 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

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Athens Olympics 2004

A call to action......that at least is how the Editor of Midlands Today describes it. All through next week he wants to hear from you: what exactly do the spending cuts mean, in practical terms, for you, your family and your community.

Email your stories to bbc.co.uk/midlandstoday and you could feature in a special series of reports throughout next week, not only on Midlands Today (BBC One weekdays 6.30pm) but also on your local BBC radio and online output.

And this Sunday's Politics Show (BBC One, 1130) is the curtain-raiser. With me live in the studio will be one of the Midlands' three new cabinet ministers, the Environment Secretary and Conservative MP for Meriden, Caroline Spelman.
We'll be taking stock of the cuts so far, asking where we can expect them next and, the question so often put to me, "where will it all end"?

The answer to that last one is "we simply don't know"! But what we do know is that this is just the start.

After the toughest budget in living memory last month, the exact shape of the savings will be spelt out in unrelenting detail in the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review in October.

Departmental spending cuts averaging 25%, but possibly peaking as high as 40%, have already been leaked. What might that mean here in the Midlands?

No firm figures yet and there won't be for some time. But put those percentages together with the grand total of around half a million public sector workers here in the Midlands alone, and you do at least get some idea of the scale of what could be in store.

Our local council workers have already been in the firing line: support for vulnerable adults, meals on wheels, swimming pools and libraries inevitably feature on the daily litany of potential closure targets.

We want to know exactly how this might impact on you..... So what happens next?

By way of light relief, stand by for another tough budget in March. And so it goes on.....

But increasingly ministers and council bosses are telling us it's not just about the "cuts agenda". There is another side of the equation: partnerships.

One council leader told me recently we need to be much smarter about sharing, or merging services, even jobs. Neighbouring councils might have a joint chief executive, for example.

He told me his authority had invested in a top-class planning team with cutting-edge computer software to boot. Or re-boot (sic) Why shouldn't they offer their services to authorities outside their own immediate patch? For a modest fee of course!

And Herefordshire Council is forming partnerships with local primary care trusts to streamline the provision of local health services. It makes you wonder why no-one's done it quite this way before.

And here is where the argument starts to turn.

No-one pretends the majority of these cuts are anything other than deeply painful. But equally, if tough circumstances can force us to "tease out synergies" and "think the unthinkable", then could it just turn out to be something of a proverbial 'ill wind'?

This increasingly will be the question which frames the debate over the months to come. Labour will tell us this particular 'ill wind' risks driving us back onto the rocks of another recession, the dreaded "double dip". And they warn it will cause far deeper and more damaging cuts to front-line services than are required to get on top of the deficit.

Meantime Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs I talk to are hoping radical action during the first half of this Parliament will allow their government some modest room for manoeuvre during the second.

Some even talk of a "Summer of Fun" in two years time! During the run-up to the Olympics, Birmingham hopes for at least a share of London's limelight as the training centre for competitors from the US, China and Jamaica. Not forgetting of course, the Shropshire home of the modern Olympics? By the time these cuts have run their course, it'll probably be Not-So-Much Wenlock.

So, does the future look like the vision of Athens the Olympic city of hope in 2004 or Athens the city of economic despair and destruction in 2010? The choice is yours.

Riots in Greece

Not building schools for the future

Patrick Burns | 12:37 UK time, Tuesday, 6 July 2010

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Crumbling school


"We must keep on building things", said my friend Bill. We were chatting over a drink just days before the lion's share of the previous Labour government's plan to rebuild or refurbish secondary schools was unceremoniously torn up.

Even though Bill has spent most of his working life in a variety of privately-run businesses, he needs no reminding that many of them rely on public sector bodies like councils, the police and, yes, educational establishments as customers for their goods and services.

And nowhere are the numbers more mind-boggling than in the building industry. That's why the list of 715 school building projects, planned under Labour's 'Building Schools for the Future' initiative (BSF) but scrapped this week by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, together added up to no less than £55bn!

And as Bill is quick to point out, construction is one of those "leading economic indicators": its fortunes, or misfortunes, foreshadow much of what lies ahead for the rest of the economy.

It's nearly three years now since I joined the project manager on a building site in Staffordshire. While part of the development continued apace, I also saw plots which had been prepared for construction but where the work itself was about to be put off indefinitely.

It struck me as surprising and disappointing at the time, because it contrasted so sharply with the general air of economic optimism. Hadn't Gordon Brown so recently promised us "no return to boom and bust"?

What I now realise of course is that I had just witnessed the earliest signs of what was to become the worst recession in living memory.

If we really are to avoid the dreaded "double-dip", presumably we must look again towards that self-same construction industry for signs of recovery. But how can it "indicate" the required measure of optimism if tens of billions of pounds worth of potential contracts are swept away at a stroke. (Let's leave the economists to dispute the relationship between cause and effect!)

Danny Alexander, the Treasury Chief Secretary, blames the previous Labour government for "spending money it simply did not have." Mr Gove said BSF had been "characterised throughout its life by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy".

So what's the reality here on the ground? New buildings have been scrapped in 60 Midlands schools, including 21 in Coventry, 13 in Birmingham, eight in Staffordshire and seven in Worcestershire.

But 20 projects in Stoke-on-Trent have avoided the axe and Wolverhampton, and Telford are other areas which have escaped the worst.

But there's real anger in Sandwell where Mr Gove admitted mistakes in his original announcement which had given nine local schools false hope that their building projects would go ahead. The Labour Deputy Leader of Sandwell Council Steve Eling branded the minister's mistake "bizarre and disgraceful".

And so begins the politics of claim and counterclaim. The Labour MP for Walsall South Valerie Vaz tells us about Joseph Leckie College in her constituency, where children filmed their own DVD several years ago showing graphic evidence of why their school was in urgent need of renewal and repair. They've just been told they've missed out yet again.

Another constituency that's fared particularly badly is Wyre Forest in Worcestershire: (no sign of political gerrymandering here, even though it has just elected Mark Garnier as the Conservative MP!!) No fewer than 6 school building projects have been stopped here. Among them is Stourport High School, where the Politics Show will reveal the reception area 'accommodated' (if that's the right word) in a tent!

As for those MPs Mark Garnier (Con, Wyre Forest) and Valerie Vaz (Lab, Walsall South), they'll be with me live in the studio to debate the merits and demerits of 'Not Building Schools' and, no doubt, to apportion the blame for it.

That's the Politics Show at 11 o'clock on BBC One on Sunday.


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