“The age of austerity is over” an upbeat Theresa May told the nation on Wednesday as she took to the stage to deliver her keynote Conservative Party Conference speech.
A decade into the government’s programme of cuts to public services, the Prime Minister signalled a loosening of the purse strings and a change in political policy as she told voters: “There are better days ahead”.
Speaking in Birmingham, May said next year’s spending review will set out a programme of increased investment in public services, with more money for the NHS and other frontline services.
“The British people need to know... that we get it,” she said. “Because you made sacrifices, there are better days ahead. A decade after the financial crash people need to know that the austerity it led to is over.”
Yet across Britain, those who have felt the sharp and continuing force of deep cuts may be skeptical that the end of austerity is anything more than a political soundbite.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said the PM’s words “lacked credibility”, pointing out children’s services faced a £2bn budget shortfall, while councils had a £4bn hole in their finances.
HuffPostUK asked those who have featured in our Austerity Bites series: what needs to be done? What must the Prime Minister do to reverse the deep and pervasive effects of austerity and ensure she keeps her promise?
‘I’d Love To Believe Things Will Change’
More than two thousand headteachers marched from Parliament Square to Downing Street on Friday to deliver a petition requesting extra cash for schools.
Fiona Thorpe, co-headteacher of Fulbourn Primary School in Cambridgeshire, was there and expressed concerns to HuffPost about the effect austerity is having on schools across the country.
Following May’s announcement, she said: “One of the things about being a headteacher is we are relentlessly optimistic and I would love to believe that austerity is over, but until I start seeing the differences, I’ll remain sceptical.
“I would love it to be true; I would love not to be worrying about what we can afford for the school and the children. That would be great!
“At the protest, I talked about the fact that schools are picking up the slack with shortages and social care, and that’s really been starkly illustrated this term.”
Thorpe said in the week since she last spoke to HuffPost, she and her co-headteacher worked out that in the 20 days since children returned to school from the summer holidays, they had spent seven full days dealing with safeguarding issues.
“There are terrible shortages of social workers and we’re doing lots of chasing, lots of work with families that 10 years ago, wouldn’t have been happening,” she added.
“So, I want to see investment in social care and local authorities. We had notification in the last few days that, for example, our local authority is no longer going to fund our management information systems and schools are going to have to buy into those packages themselves.
“We’re talking thousands of pounds for something that used to be provided by our local authority and they just can’t do it anymore. We’re talking about 200 schools all having to tender for management information systems and having to buy them separately – and I cannot believe that’s more cost effective than local authorities being funded properly and being able to do those functions for us.
“There are many, many issues that need addressing but those are two that’s happened for us since we had the march. Every time we open our budget, we think ‘what else are we going to have to pay for?’
“It’s all very well the Department for Education saying more and more money is going into schools, but we’re having to pay for more and more things that used to be provided by local authorities or other services. We’re having to fund those ourselves. Money is going out faster than it’s coming in.”
‘Give People Flats – Give People A Chance’
Bartek is a 28-year-old Polish national who is sleeping rough on a bench opposite the flagship Habitat home improvement store in London. Speaking from the park bench, where he has bedded down for the night, he told HuffPost the government must focus on ending the rough sleeping crisis.
“The easiest way to end homelessness is to give people a flat – and they realised that in Finland, if you want to end homelessness give people a flat.”
Asking for only his first name to be published, Bartek added: “I came here to work. Of course I’m addicted, but I’m struggling with myself, all the time I am trying to rise up. Some people who were sleeping on the streets, now they are in a flat already. I don’t know how they do it but it is possible and these people, when they receive this flat, they really stop drinking, they really have strength and it’s a prime example that I can help myself when I get accommodation.”
Bartek said any accommodation, even a hostel for a couple of weeks, would really help him, although he has no rights to access benefits or state support.
“The winter is coming and it will not be easy, only harder day after day,” he said. “I’ve been sleeping rough since June. I came from Poland in January and of course I had housing when I first arrived, but that was private rented. I stopped going to work and I started drinking, like always.
“I was here from 2015 to 2017, then I went to Warsaw, then I’ve been in Germany to save some money and then I came here in January. But again the story is the same – the same bench, the same people, the same cider, the same habits.”
He has been working for six weeks for City of Westminster Parks Service and wears a fleece with the council’s logo on, but said: “I just, like always, stopped going to work.” Cider addiction and depression affect his mental health.
Asked if he would return to Poland if the UK paid to send him back, he said: “No, I don’t have anything to go there for. I prefer to live on the street by myself than to be sent to Poland. I’m going to step out from the plane and what next? When I am here I am trying to help myself.”
Although he has a copy of the previous day’s Evening Standard, which includes a two-page article on the PM’s speech, Bartek is unaware of May’s promise on austerity. In fact, he says he does not really know what austerity is.
But he says he has sympathy for British people who believe austerity has also been driven by economic migration, although he insists people from eastern Europe who come to the UK do so with the determination to work.
“Britain has been supporting people from the whole world since the 1960s and 1970s and I work with English people who are born in London, grow up in London, and they are so pissed off, because they say, ’When I was a teenager I had to be in competition with people from the whole world, why did you make my life in my own country so hard?’.
“They are angry and I’m not surprised. Even when someone reacts in a bad way when I say I am Polish, that’s alright, I can understand it.
“Now we have exactly the same in Poland because we have a lot of workers from Ukraine. And when someone says men from Ukraine steal your jobs, the men come here without language, without friends, without money, with nothing, and he is taking your job, what does it mean to you?
“So we have to understand that always economic immigrants are going to change the reality and you have to accept that.”
‘There’s A Huge Rise In Use Of Foodbanks’
Michelle Ramejkis, who works for LetsGo lettings agents in Merseyside, said she was sceptical about May’s promise because of the day-to-day hardship and poverty she sees in her region.
“It’s a nice idea that austerity is coming to an end, but it’s not. I don’t understand why she’s saying it’s coming to an end because we’re not seeing any of that in the north west,” she told HuffPost.
“We’ve not hit bottom, I think that’s still to come. We’ve seen a huge increase in the use of food banks. People aren’t getting paid their benefits for one reason or another, how long can we sustain using food banks for?
“If she came outside of the London area and looked further afield she’d see that not everything is as rosy as it’s made out to be in London – she’s using that as the yardstick to measure the rest of the country and it’s not right. It’s not actual fact.”
The property expert said a lot of landlords were deciding to sell their properties because they could no longer afford to rent them out.
“Because of Universal Credit coming in and the housing benefit changes, and the bedroom tax changes, a lot of people aren’t getting rents from the council or the landlord, or we’re not receiving rent because of one issue or another and that has a huge knock-on effect,” she added.
“These landlords still have to pay mortgages, we still have to be paid, so if the government are introducing all of these things they’re not looking at the knock-on effects.
“They say: ’OK we’re going to introduce Universal Credit’ but they’re not actually paying out on Universal Credit and that’s where a lot of the problems are stemming from.
“There are no council houses available – we’ve had people who have been evicted and put into women’s refuges, been put up in hotels with children.”
‘We Need To Put More Police Officers Into Uniform’
For veteran police officer Sergeant Simon Kempton, the first thing the government must do is start to reverse the effects a decade of swingeing cuts have had on police numbers.
From a pre-austerity peak of 144,353, the number of officers in England and Wales has fallen by 16% – the equivalent of 22,424 fewer officers on Britain’s streets and in its police stations.
“Theresa May was quite clear when she said that numbers of officers don’t correlate with levels of crime,” Kempton, who is the Police Federation’s operational policing lead, said.
“She’s frankly wrong,” he added. “So the first thing she needs to do is reverse the cuts and put more police officers into uniform, into suits, investigating crime, catching thieves.”
But the sharp reduction in the number of police stations is a much thornier issue. An investigation by the Mail on Sunday found that between 2010 and 2017, four in 10 stations in the UK had closed their doors.
According to Kempton, the capital investment needed to return the number of police stations to pre-austerity levels would be “unreachable”.
“We warned them when they started selling places off: ‘You can only sell these places once and once they’ve gone, they’re gone’,” he said.
“But because of the huge, unprecedented scale of the cuts, many chief officers felt they had no choice but to sell the family silver. Well, it’s gone now and we can’t get it back.”
Kempton added: “What we need to do now is consolidate what we have.”