Scrapping Building Schools for the Future hurt – but it forced Liverpool to rethink its finances

Light breaks through over Liverpool. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.