The sting of austerity is felt across the capital. Whether it’s the government’s swingeing cuts to local authority budgets or the steep underfunding of our public services, every Londoner has been impacted. London is ready and willing to provide solutions to the problems austerity presents, but is held back by Whitehall’s failure to devolve the funding and the powers we need. In every sphere of local and regional government, progressive political leaders are holding a dented shield which will become increasingly battered unless there is a change in direction.
The United Nations recently investigated the scale of poverty across the United Kingdom. Its report vividly outlines the ideologically-driven dismantling of our society’s safety nets since 2010 and reached the excoriating conclusion that “much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.
For almost a decade, the most vulnerable Londoners have borne the brunt of austerity. There is a widening chasm between the rich and poor in our capital, largely fuelled by the government’s failure to address burning injustices such as in-work poverty and by its disastrous welfare reforms, including the benefit cap and the roll out of universal credit.
The stark symptoms of austerity are abundant, yet these are still being met with indifference and, in some cases, denial. The unavoidable reality remains that thousands of Londoners are sleeping rough on our streets, food banks are continuing to spring up across the capital to meet burgeoning demand, and children are going to school hungry.
Stats recently released by the Trussell Trust reveal that 166,512 three-day emergency food parcels were given out to Londoners between April 2018 and March 2019, with over a third of them going to children. The sad and startling truth is that these figures represent only the tip of the iceberg. Earlier in the month, a report released by the End Child Poverty coalition revealed that half of the 20 local authorities in England with the highest child poverty rates in 2017/2018 were in London, including the top four. This abysmal situation is being further exacerbated by the sharp rise in school exclusions and the steep cuts being made to vital youth services across the capital.
With such a desolate picture in mind, the often sensationalist narratives we hear of London having a gilded status compared to the rest of the UK seem rather unhelpful. London and the South East continue to economically support other regions of the UK, so it is vital that in the event of any redistribution of resources and investment, the capital is given a fair and workable deal.
As well as outsourcing its duty of care towards the most vulnerable to the overstretched public and third sectors, the government has failed to support long-term, inclusive growth in London. The next generation of Londoners and our capital’s public services and infrastructure have all been largely left bereft of the support needed from Westminster. Paralysed by Brexit and internal disputes, it would be a sound, pragmatic move to hand over more powers and funding to City Hall, so it can directly and more effectively address some of the most pressing issues facing Londoners. However, the capital has for the most part been left to struggle against the insurmountable currents of austerity.
The government has helped with the money it has allocated for the Mayor to work with partners to deliver housing across the capital. Yet there is still a significant shortfall. City Hall has presided over a record number of genuinely affordable home starts and last year kickstarted the construction of a new generation of council homes. However, according to the Mayor’s estimates, to meet the demand for affordable housing in London, the government would need to allocate roughly four times what it currently provides.
It is a similar story when it comes to policing, with the Metropolitan Police Service facing a staggering £1 billion worth of cuts to its budget by 2023 and the number of officers per head of London’s population at its lowest level for two decades. This is significantly hampering the Met’s efforts to clamp down on violent crime. We are also seeing the significant impact of these cuts upon the morale and wellbeing of our police officers, with a concerning number needing to take long-term sick leave. To plug the glaring gaps, the Mayor has put hundreds of millions of pounds from City Hall’s budget into the Met. But without the government taking responsibility and reversing its cuts, this will not be enough in the long-term.
Transport in the capital has also suffered, as the government has removed the £700 million a year operating grant it used to give to Transport for London (TfL). The irresponsible decision to deduct this vital source of funding, agreed by Boris Johnson during his tenure as Mayor, has left TfL as one of the only transport authorities in a major world city without a government subsidy. This, combined with the Crossrail debacle and overspend, jointly overseen by the Department for Transport and TfL, has meant that we are losing the ability to fund other projects.
At a time of worldwide economic uncertainty, we should be safeguarding and investing in our communities and key infrastructure projects. Instead, the government has left a dire legacy of austerity in London, continually exposing the most vulnerable in our city to avoidable hardships, whilst ignoring the increasing pressures being placed on overwhelmed local authorities.