Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘Waltham Forest

[Crossposted to Where’s The Benefit where I am one of the team.]

While massive spending cuts hit us all, my council – Waltham Forest – has taken the step of asking its residents where they should make savings. A friendly green website presented me with 8 different categories such as “children’s services” and “your streets” and invited me to make cuts of £55m. Suddenly I realised the mammoth scale of this undertaking – the way that no facilities or services can escape unscathed. However, I gave myself the challenge of maintaining adult social care at its current rate.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think adult social care is currently even adequate in my borough. I have been told that if someone can manage to give themself a flannel-bath, then they are not entitled to any kind of care. Of course this doesn’t take account of any inability to cook safely, nor to take out the rubbish or manage laundry! But simply trying to juggle cuts while keeping rates of social care at their current level made me aware of the huge task that councils are facing.

Each topic came with a slider – I simply had to pick categories and drag them to save money, and the website would let me know the impact of my actions. For example as I removed all funding from “Sport & Leisure” I was informed that the impact would be “reduced support to voluntary sector sports clubs, reduced sports activities in parks and estates and reduced sports activities and participation in competitions and events”. While any cutback is a shame, I don’t feel guilty in removing sports activities when compared to helping disabled people to eat, be clean and maintain independence.

However, although there are eight categories and sliders to adjust, it is instantly clear that some categories will have little impact in making the £55m of required savings. After all, the total budget for Housing & Homelessness is just £4.85m. For Culture, Learning & Community Libraries the budget is £6.91m. In fact, if I set 6 of the 8 sliders to zero – removing all funding in those categories whatsoever – I still need to save another £28m. This money can only come from Children’s Services & Education, or the Adult Social Care that I am fighting to protect. In fact if I maintain adult care at its current level, the system shows me that I have no choice but to cut Children’s Services by more than 25%, removing several social workers and forcing large numbers of at-risk children to stay in their home rather than go into care – something which the real world would not tolerate. My changes would even impose the removal of care packages for disabled children; it seems that whichever way I go, with the huge quantity of cuts required, there will be a direct impact on disabled people one way or another.

Because adult social care comprises such a very large proportion of a council’s expenditure, it’s natural that many people will think that this is an obvious way to make savings. And although any such cutback is abhorrent to my mind, it may be essential in order for our councils to stay solvent. I am pleasantly surprised that although adult social care draws so much money, respondents to Waltham Forest’s website have only voted for a 7% reduction in our services. “Only” 7%. If the council implement cutbacks based on this consultation, they will “only” …increase charges for their services (when many service users may be on benefits and unable to contribute financially for their care) …reduce programmes to support vulnerable people and their carers …and make staffing cuts so there will be even longer delays for assessments than there are at the moment.

Wow. Yet when I play with the figures myself, I can see that this may be a lucky escape – no matter how bad it seems, things can always be worse!

Unfortunately, in the three weeks that this website has been running, only 733 people have responded. That’s a quarter of 1% of everyone who lives in the area. How disappointing, that we are offered this opportunity to have our say and shape service provision for the future, and yet barely anyone bothers? It’s not for want of publicity, as a flyer went out with “Waltham Forest News”, a council newspaper delivered to every household in the borough.

I am utterly opposed to cuts of services and benefits which help disabled and older people to remain independent. I am increasingly concerned about these “stealth” cuts made by boroughs, where there is no right of appeal. But even I must admit that I can’t see what the solution is, other than to hope the economy recovers quickly, and that disabled people are the first to have their services reinstated when more funds are available.

In the meantime, I fear hearing about the human side of these cuts. I already see case studies in the local paper, I know people who are struggling, and situations where older or disabled neighbours have to provide food for one another. I know this is already happening on my own doorstep and I am dreading the situation getting worse. It seems the councils are between a rock and a hard place. All we can do is tell them to cut anything, everything, but adult social care.

There is a saying that the best gifts you can give to your child are roots, and wings. I suppose I am rooted in Somerset, as that’s where I grew up, but I accepted the wings and left for London as soon as I was old enough. I went to university here and haven’t stayed at home since. But wait – why am I saying I haven’t stayed “at home” since then, if London is truly where I belong?

As a teenager I used to save up and visit London on day trips, catching the bus for a four hour ride, half a day in the Big Smoke, and then four hours home again. I’d do it as often as I could, and I always felt as the coach reached the Hammersmith flyover and entered London that somehow I was coming home. When I moved here for university I knew I belonged straight away, and have lived in Waltham Forest, an east London borough located between the inner city and the Essex countryside, for fifteen years. I fell in love with the place, from which the centre of town was just half an hour away yet Epping Forest was practically across the road. It was easy to forget Somerset, a lazy and retrograde place where the buses stopped at 6pm and where it seemed I had few friends but everyone knew me.

Growing up in Somerset was dull. Public transport was minimal (just an hourly bus during office hours) and my friend and I would often end up sitting in a historic high street with pizza and cider. Everything looked pretty while the pace of life dawdled – in fact Taunton is one of only two towns in the UK where more than a third of the population are OAPs. Somerset is more care home than carefree.

In 2006 something happened to throw me off kilter: I honeymooned in Iceland, a country I’d longed to visit. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love.

There’s a lot I shouldn’t like about Iceland – it’s cold, isolated, and there are no trains! However, the weather is both its best and worst feature and I came prepared. Disabled access was pretty good (outside Reykjavik people tend to build out and not up) so I had little to complain about. Scenery was absolutely breathtaking with a waterfall, glacier or mountain around every corner, and for the first time I felt truly safe in the countryside. It seemed to me that this is where I was destined to be – I had finally come home.

Of course, it was only a week before the dream ended and I had to return to my real home but now I was confused. I had Somerset in my background, east London as my current location, but perhaps Iceland was where I should aim for in the future?

It’s hard to compare like with like, because Somerset has half a million people, the London Borough of Waltham Forest has a quarter of a million, while Iceland has just three hundred thousand people in the whole country. In my area, there are 5700 people per square kilometre. In Iceland, there are three.

Each place has its own beauty: Somerset has quaint, historic buildings, and strange village names such as Queen Camel. East London has a more purposeful pace and is wonderfully multicultural (meaning there will always be a shop open on Christmas day when you’ve forgotten the stuffing) and there is a feeling that the world is on your doorstep. Yet Iceland offers northern lights, surreal lava plains, and an astonishingly low crime rate – a recent national headline was “Baby Goats Born at North Iceland Farm”, something which might not even have made the local news in Somerset or Waltham Forest.

However it strikes me that, common to every area, in the best places people know their neighbours and look out for each them in a villagey environment. In the worst of each location there will be areas where people shut their doors on each other and view you with a slightly suspicious and hostile manner. Perhaps contentment depends on finding the best place in your own locality, rather than looking further afield.

I would be happy to forget Somerset, but for the fact that I have family there. I adore Iceland, but don’t yet speak the language, and perhaps the gloss would go if I lived there rather than just visited; the food is awful for vegetarians and there is no such thing as online shopping, instead you have to visit several stores to find everything you need each week. So I suppose I should be content to stay in London for the foreseeable future, which is just as well, because this is where my support network, and my husband’s job, is located. For now Somerset is just a place I visit when I want to see family – and sadly moving to Iceland is still just a pipedream… but I can’t let go of the fantasy.

This is not the article I intended to write.

I had planned to analyse how well each of my local parliamentary candidates responded to a question I sent them – but that hardly matters now.

A fortnight before last week’s general election I emailed each of the candidates to ask for their policies on health, home care and the future of my local hospital. Only one (the Conservative Ed Northover) engaged with me – an independent referred me to his leaflet and then followed up with spam, and the others didn’t bother to respond. The BNP and UKIP candidates didn’t even advertise an email address, so they were out of the loop from the start.

I had been genuinely uncertain which way to vote and hoped that my candidates’ responses would help me decide. I was surprised that so few made the effort to answer. However at the end of the day it made little difference – our safe Labour seat remains in Labour hands (though how safe they might be, I don’t know).

Instead, I find myself rocked by the results from the local elections. Somehow, despite opinion polls showing national support for Tory and Lib Dem, there has been a swing to Labour – believed to come from people who are scared of the Tories taking over, trying to defend themselves against this possibility.

Previously a borough under No Overall Control, my area (Waltham Forest) now has a majority of Labour councillors. I think our council has operated quite well in recent years and I’m concerned that now one party has a majority, policies, planning applications and spending cuts can be rushed through and rubberstamped without adequate debate in the Town Hall.

What has really shaken me is the loss of the most effective councillor in my area, Keith Rayner, beaten by just a few dozen votes. After 20 years of service, getting things done with his effective but friendly manner, he has been rejected by the electorate – my own friends and neighbours.

I don’t mind admitting that I cried at the news, and I hear that I’m not the only one. Now residents are questioning themselves, wondering which neighbours played Judas. The situation is upsetting, and uncomfortable.

So this may not have been the article I intended to write, but it still has a point to make. If you value someone, vote for them. Put your X by the name of someone you actually want to see in power, rather than being sucked into nervous tactical voting. It looks like we may soon be facing another general election, and hopefully this time people will be brave enough to follow their guts, and the results will put the country in a position for real change at last.