Town faces cultural death and social deprivation: Harlow council will have to cut 176 jobs and slash services to meet its budget. Kathy Marks reports

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The Independent Online
IN AN airless committee room above the Playhouse Theatre in Harlow, Essex, half a dozen people are hard at work, inserting copies of new programmes into Cellophane bags for postage.

The 'stuffers', as they are known, are all volunteers dedicated to an institution which they regard as the cultural hub of the town, and all devastated at the prospect of its closure.

The Playhouse is dependent on a grant from Harlow district council and that may well disappear as part of pounds 6m in cuts the authority has to make. Unless the theatre's management can put through a rescue plan, the lights will probably go down for the final time this summer.

The pounds 18.2m budget set by the Labour-controlled council on Thursday night also means the loss of 176 municipal jobs, increased charges for services and the end of holiday play schemes.

But more savage cuts look likely for the post-war new town of 80,000 residents. Harlow's budget was still pounds 7.6m above government guidelines, and it may yet be capped. The Government wanted a cutback of 56 per cent, the biggest reduction imposed on an English local authority.

Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, has no doubts about the reason for the town's predicament. 'The truth of the matter is that Harlow is notorious as a spendthrift, extravagant, irresponsible council,' he told BBC radio yesterday.

But charges of profligacy are rejected by the council leader, Richard Howitt, who said: 'The Government has robbed Harlow of pounds 40m of revenue support grant, and since they changed the rules on business rates, have taken a further pounds 21m. That's a financial stranglehold on a council like us, and has forced us to set a budget in excess of the Government's capping limit.'

In the town, which has returned Labour councils for decades, there are few voices raised against elected members. Nina Forth, the Playhouse's marketing assistant, said: 'The people of Harlow elected this council because they want this level of services.'

The 21-year-old Playhouse attracts visitors from a 50-mile radius. The nearest alternatives for Harlow residents are in Stevenage and Chelmsford, between 20 and 30 miles away.

Bob Jones, a volunteer worker and one of the theatre's founders, said: 'There will be a black hole in the middle of the town if this place closes. It is the centre of cultural life in Harlow and surrounding areas.'

If the council is capped, the axe could fall on community centres, museums, sports and recreation facilities and sheltered housing. The town's day centre for the elderly, the Leah Manning Centre, would probably close.

As well as lunches, social events and exercise classes, the centre provides services such as bathing and hairdressing and meals on wheels for more than 200 homes.

Mary Pampling, 77, would be completely housebound if the centre's ambulance did not pick her up. 'I can't walk or use public transport, so this gets me out of the house and meeting other people,' she said. 'Otherwise I'd be very isolated.' Mrs Pampling has lived in the town since the early 1950s. 'Having watched it grow up, it upsets me a lot to see everything being run down.'

Frances Newland, senior day centre officer, said: 'The council is much better placed than the Government to judge local needs. Maybe there has been some waste, but they are a caring, progressive council.'

A petition in the foyer of the Playhouse is matched by one on the counter of the Harlow Advice Centre, which is also under threat. The centre employs full- time specialist staff advising on social security, employment, debt and housing problems. Sue Jones, the centre's acting head, said: 'There will be increased poverty and hardship in the town if this place shuts down.'

Derbyshire county council is to axe 1,200 jobs to meet government spending targets, the authority announced last night. The Labour council needs to cut its budget by 5 per cent or pounds 37.9m.

(Photograph omitted)