Who Stole the Town Hall? exposes the brutal neoliberal attack on councils says ANDY HEDGECOCK, and it underlines the need for socialist decentralisation serving the people, not profiteers
Who Stole the Town Hall? The End of Local Government As We Know It by Peter Latham (Policy Press, £12.99)
WITH startling clarity, Peter Latham exposes the moral bankruptcy of neoliberalism and the risks it poses to all of us in Who Stole the Town Hall?, which deconstructs the government’s strategy of dressing self-serving centralisation in the clothes of “localism.”
It considers too the perilous state of public services and the corrosive impact of outsourcing, with Latham’s central argument summarised in a hard-hitting introduction by Rodney Bickerstaffe, former general secretary of Unison.
The greed of privateers, Bickerstaffe suggests, leads to the decline of essential public services and this, in turn, leads to inequality, disorder, distress, anger and poverty.
One of Latham’s key themes is the way in which neoliberalism has affected housing. Cuts to capital investment budgets, sharp reductions in benefits and the capping of allowances have led to an additional 10,000 families becoming homeless.
In London, cuts are hitting poorer households hardest because housing associations are switching tenancies to higher rates to make up financial shortfalls.
Latham explains the history of the neoliberal project as well as its impact. He points out that the “reconfiguration” of public services — the shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus — was initiated in 1976 by Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan.
Neoliberal politics have dominated public life for 40 years and the austerity politics of Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition merely created new opportunities to deregulate, privatise and increase the role of business in public services.
In the first section of the book, Latham exposes the Tories’ devolution agenda as a smokescreen for further spending cuts and the mass privatisation of public services.
Latham believes that the replacement of traditional council committees with cabinets has, in addition to weakening democratic control, facilitated the growth of toxic outsourcing projects and ineffective public-private partnerships (PPPs).
He goes on to deal with the creation of “metro” mayors and police and crime commissioners — such roles are less accountable than the committee structures they replaced and have increased the potential for abuses of power.
Examining the financial underpinning of public service provision, Latham suggests that years of austerity have made essential services unsustainable and he highlights the damaging contribution of the EU in driving down wages, undermining conditions of employment and forcing spending cuts.
The book’s strength is its specificity and an example is its consideration of the demise of public sector employment. Latham reveals that Tory-controlled Northamptonshire County Council intends to directly hire an “expert core” of only 150 staff.
On corporate-led regeneration, he is unambiguous about outcomes — Manchester has more unemployment than similar cities and the number of homeless people rough-sleeping outside its glitzy corporate developments is up by 150 per cent.
The final chapter asserts the relevance of a Marxist critique of political structures and provides a detailed argument for socialist decentralisation.
Latham sets out a 25-point plan supporting the reinvigoration of local government which would include the introduction of a land value tax, replacing PPPs with direct public investment, making councillors more accountable, increasing the transparency of political decisions, accepting progressive laws from the EU, while rejecting exploitative EU agreements that advantage corporations at the expense of workers.
He closes on an optimistic note, suggesting that the social dynamics associated with Jeremy Corbyn can support a shift towards a progressive, transformative kind of politics.
While I was reading this book, Grenfell Tower burned. The news images of exhausted firefighters, the Prime Minister rushing to her car to avoid angry protesters and, above all, the blackened shell of the building are symbols of the self-serving neglect Latham exposes.
Neoliberalism is unsustainable and this book uses compelling and accessible evidence that a different form of politics is both possible and essential.