A year at the sharp end: How Stoke was cut to shreds

With one in four on benefits and a community relying on its council, how would a £36m spending cut work? David Nath spent a year in a place where the Big Society is still just an idea

What do "cuts" mean in a city where the council is the biggest employer, a quarter of the working population are on benefits, and the Big Society is an abstract idea?

That's what I set out the discover by spending a year in Stoke-on-Trent. And the answer is depressing – services slashed, facilities closed, and a community pushed towards desperation.

The city council, like many others, is being forced to reduce spending by 28 per cent over four years, altering our idea of what a local authority should and could do, possibly forever. To its credit, the council opened its doors to our BBC Four documentary crew, giving largely unfettered access to decisions normally taken behind closed doors.

Filming began in December 2010, the day the minister Eric Pickles announced the local government finance settlement. For Stoke, the news was worse than expected, once council leader Mohammed Pervez did the sums. The annual budget was around £211m. He was staring at a £36m shortfall. Nothing was safe from the axe – care homes, libraries, toilets, Christmas lights.

You didn't need to be in Stoke long to realise cuts of this magnitude would hurt. This wasn't Tunbridge Wells, it was the sixteenth most deprived area in England. The city had been badly bruised by the closure of the coal mines and steel works. The potteries it was famed for once employed around 50,000 people; today the figure is nearer 6,000. Many families have come to rely on the council to support them.

Protest groups sprouted up across the city. The most vocal was led by the city's mothers who were fighting against the closure of seven of the city's 16 Sure Start Centres, places where their kids might escape this cycle of dependency. But the council couldn't afford to keep them all open. Closing seven would save around £2m.

Mr Pervez had to weigh things up carefully. The campaign group was vocal and had city-wide support. He was adamant decisions about what to cut and what to keep weren't influenced by who shouted the loudest, but said: "Given there is so much demand from the public, it would be foolish for any politician to go against that."

Non-statutory services like swimming pools were also under threat. Maybe not a huge deal in areas where people could afford private health clubs but in Stoke, a municipal swimming pool was the only recreation some communities had.

Tunstall, Robbie Williams's home town, boasted the country's oldest Victorian pool. Opened in 1890, the council argued the grade II-listed building was now too expensive to maintain. It would have to go – unless the local community ran it themselves. This was the acid test for the Prime Minister's freshly minted idea, the Big Society. Could Tunstall unleash a hidden entrepreneurial spirit?

The genial vicar Father John Stather rallied the locals, desperately trying to build support. More than 3,000 had put their names to a petition fighting the pool's closure but he wanted more: "You've signed petitions and held up placards. The time has now come for more direct action. Don't complain about it, do something practical."

Sadly Father John couldn't bring his flock with him. The council suggested he needed to raise £150,000 to make a community pool viable but the first big fundraising initiative saw only 25 of the 1,000 tickets sold. The writing was on the wall for the pool.

What did it say about the Big Society? That it had a better chance of working in more affluent parts of the UK? Or that, although the Tunstall community cared, they didn't care enough?

The Council was also withdrawing from other areas of provision. lt had no choice but to pay for care for the elderly but it didn't any longer have a duty to run homes itself, so care homes for dementia sufferers closed and confused pensioners were carted off to private homes. The effects of Austerity Britain were painfully apparent in the city and there were three more years of pain to come. Leader Mohammed Pervez estimated the council would have made around £119m of cuts over the four-year period. The people of Stoke were asking the question: what would be left of city by then?

Councils feeling the pain

Gateshead

An announcement in March by Gateshead Council that 275 jobs would have to go to meet cuts of £22m over the next year prompted protests from unions. The Labour-run council said more than half of the losses were likely to be compulsory.

Birmingham

The UK's largest local authority said the £600m cuts it would have to make over the next six years marked "the end of local government as we know it". The Labour council said 6,000 jobs would go by 2017 as a result of government cuts.

Barnet

The Conservative-run council in London approved £53.4m in cuts in 2011 to take place over three years, with £29.1m to be saved in 2011-12. Around 350 jobs are expected to be lost as a result.

Hull

Around 1,000 public sector staff lost their jobs with Hull City Council, left, after its budget was cut by £50m in 2011. The Liberal Democrat-controlled council has warned that hundreds more jobs are at risk.

Nottingham

Labour councillors approved £20m in spending cuts in March of this year, which it said would see the closure of an old person's home, the loss of nearly 200 jobs and the raising of council tax by around £36.

Episode two of 'The Year the Town Hall Shrank' is on B BC4 on 8 November at 9pm. David Nath is the director

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