The Labour mayor of Liverpool on life after Building Schools for the Future.
Eight years ago, I picked up the pieces of our bid to have 24 schools in Liverpool rebuilt or renovated as part of the government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.
As one of its first acts, the coalition government had scrapped the scheme. The shutters at the Department of Education abruptly came down. Civil servants we had been dealing with stopped returning our calls.
Austerity had already become Whitehall’s official religion and councils simply had to get with the programme. Cuts were coming.
Michael Gove, the then education secretary, appeared on the television and at the dispatch box making light of what, to him, was juicy £55bn slice of departmental spending he could offer up to the Treasury.
The trouble is it came at the expense of the children of Liverpool – and those in dozens of other boroughs – who were left in old, dilapidated and, in many cases, unsafe buildings that had long outlived their purpose. No-one was listening.
Left high and dry, our response was to take matters into our own hands.
We invited our various education partners to sit around the table and thrash out an alternative programme, utilising whatever council funding we could find – and all other government cash we could beg and borrow – to generate our own, localised version of BSF.
The Liverpool Schools Investment Programme was born and over the past decade, £180m has been invested in rebuilding or substantially repairing 24 schools across the city. Around 18,000 pupils in the city are now benefitting from state-of the art classroom facilities, helping with the task of ensuring our children get the best state education possible. For me, it stands as one of my proudest achievements.
However, the broader point is that we have seen public spending delegitimised over the past decade as cuts have hollowed out public services and everything from the benefits system, to the armed forces have felt the effects.
We were originally told ‘the big society’ would fill the gap. Of course, all the jumble sales in the world won’t replace the £444m taken out of our revenue support grant (RSG).
Next year’s spending review – on the back of anaemic growth and the potential shock effects of Brexit – means the situation will get worse, not better. (That’s not even mentioning the total lack of clarity about what happens when the RSG is abolished in 2020.)
There is no reprieve for local authorities, despite Tory-controlled Northamptonshire County Council actually going bust. That’s before we get onto the yawning national financial crisis in adult social care and the £2bn deficit that has opened up in children’s services.
Still, we cannot sit on our hands waiting to be rescued by a friendlier climate in Westminster and have to help ourselves. So that’s what we’re doing.
Our ‘invest to earn’ model sees us relentlessly sweat our assets in order to generate new revenue streams.
Using our capital borrowing powers, we are planning to help Everton football club build a new fit-for-purpose stadium, which will form the centrepiece of a much larger regeneration of 125-acres of our dilapidated north docks area, which have lain dormant since the 1980s. The revenue we will receive, if the deal is agreed – around £7m a year for 25 years – will be put straight back into frontline services.
A new £200m investment programme – again paid for by a mixture of savings and borrowing – will help us deliver a massive step-change in the quality of our roads network.
We have also launched a new municipal housing company, called Foundations, in order to rebalance the housing market in Liverpool. More than two-thirds of the properties in the city are in council tax Band A. This means that, for every one per cent of council tax, we raise just £1.6m. We need a better housing mix across the city to improve the sustainability of our core finances.
Our plans – although ambitious – are also prudent, with auditors from the Local Government Association recently reporting that we have a prudent level of debt and strong internal procedures for managing our finances.
Economic efficiency, then, to deliver social justice. Frankly, we have little choice but to be bold and ambitious in finding practical solutions to the problems that an austerity-led agenda has left us with, as we seek to protect the vulnerable and discharge our broader responsibilities.
For me, though, this journey began with a single, thoughtless swing of the axe from Michael Gove back in 2010.
Joe Anderson is Labour mayor of Liverpool.