A Westminster Life: These local cuts are dismantling the last vestiges of civil society

In my little patch of the Valleys five libraries will close

Chris Bryant
Friday 18 October 2013 18:17

This has been the most dispiriting week in my 12 years as an MP. For years I got used to attending openings: new primary schools, a new hospital, three new health centres, a new relief road, a Baptist Chapel magnificently resurrected as a youth and community centre. There were even new Asda, Lidl and Morrison stores. There were closures too. The Working Men’s Club in Treorchy, was demolished and replaced by three new houses. Blaenllechau lost its infant school and its post office and Treherbert its baths. After a long campaign led by the GMB, Burberry closed its gates in 2007.

But nothing can quite compare with what is coming. Put simply, the Council has to find £56 million of cuts over the next four years, roughly £20 million this year. So the first list of closures is out. In my little patch of the Valleys five libraries will close, along with seven day centres. There will be no weekend Meals on Wheels, nursery school provision will be cut back, all our youth clubs will be relocated to secondary schools. Depressingly, the amount of money saved by some of these measures is paltry – roughly £500,000 from closing the Rhondda’s seven day centres – and the cuts announced thus far only get the Council half way.

And what’s infuriating is that I can do nothing about it. Oh yes, I can rant and rave. I can make a speech or two. I will excoriate George Osborne for slashing the grant to the Welsh Assembly by £1.6 billion. I could turn up for a photo opportunity at a day centre. I could stage a sit-in to try and save a particular library. I’ve just become Patron of the Rhondda Swimming Club and I might have to resort to a swim-in to save a swimming pool should the next round of cuts swing that way. But there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Not just because it’s a Council responsibility, or because Council funding allocations in Wales are determined by the Welsh Assembly, nor even because Labour is in opposition in Westminster. No, the truth is that if Labour wins the next election we are not going to have spare cash to hand out.

But why it makes me so angry is that some of these services were originally built by the voluntary subscriptions of miners. In some leafy stretch of suburbia perhaps modern charity could fill the gap. But with so many people locally on short hours, low wages and diminished benefits, that’s a pipedream. So it feels as if the last vestiges of civil society are being dismantled and a bonfire of local services is being lit on the altar of austerity.

Teenage follies need to be forgotten

I’ve not heard many disagree with Gloria de Piero’s request that people stop the crazy hunt for photos of her topless from 20 years ago. But there’s a wider point. We Labourites harp on about Boris and Dave’s adventures in Bullingdon-land. Some have salivated at the idea of kiss-and-tell stories from George Osborne’s youth. But the truth is that modern technology means that the sins, indiscretions and wild excesses of our youth are likely to hang around indelibly in the ether. Embarrassing photos, tweets and emails will probably plague the futures of many a budding politician. But the public is way ahead of the censorious press. They know that clay feet needn’t hobble a political hero, because even politicians have to be human. Gloria (pictured) has suggested that people don’t want politics to be restricted to those who planned their political careers in their teens. If anything the public would preclude from office anyone who declared such a teenage ambition.

No loyal support in Plebgate

I don’t know what happened outside Downing Street and I don’t want to endorse high-handed rudeness to public officials, but it seems that Andrew Mitchell may have been stitched up somewhere along the way. One thing that still completely mystifies me, though, is why Cameron, who had all the facts to hand, sacked him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mitchell is now after Cameron’s job.

One way to empty the country

Although I’m no longer the Shadow Minister for Immigration (I’ve been transferred sideways to Welfare Reform) I had agreed ages ago to speak to Erith and Thamsmead Labour Party about immigration on Wednesday and it seemed rude to cancel. There was a great turn-out, giving the lie to those who think Labour people don’t want to talk about immigration. One chap called Alan told us of being harangued on a bus by a 72-year-old who thought that Britain was just too full. Alan told him “my father died at 63 and his brother at 64. If only you’d done the same there would be one fewer, wouldn’t there?” This is not Labour policy.

The Deputy Speaker stakes

The Deputy Speaker election was by secret ballot, but let me read the runes. Several Labour colleagues hoped to vote for Brian Binley, but he ruined his chances by talking endlessly about “man management” at our hustings session. A very Scouse-sounding Nadine Dorries reckoned that she would get a better reception from Labour than from Conservatives but was never in the running (if only we could all see ourselves as others see us). Henry Bellingham won plaudits for being a surprisingly good egg a la P G Wodehouse. David Amess was the funniest, not least recounting a campaign he had been involved in where his preferred candidate got fewer votes than there were members of the campaign team. Most MPs on both sides reckoned that however entertaining it might be to tweak Mr Bercow’s nose by electing Simon Burns, it would be daft to have a Speaker’s House divided against itself. And Eleanor Laing spoke the least, was the most gracious and as one Liberal told me “it would be good to have a Scottish woman in the chair during the referendum”.

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