“Austerity” isn’t an easy word to define. It’s been used as a catch-all to explain the cuts we’ve faced since the banking crash in 2007-8.
Austerity, we were told, was necessary to balance the books and pay for the bankers’ bailout. Successive London government imposed cuts on public spending – in health, welfare, policing, fire and local council services – which saw budgets squeezed over the years and jobs lost.
The pain, we were told, would be worth it because in a few years’ time we would have wiped out the deficit and balanced the books. Except that the target for balancing the books and running a surplus was always somewhere over the rainbow – we would never reach it.
In the meantime, the reality of Austerity began to hit home. Here in Wrexham, we’ve seen the council closing libraries, leisure centres, care homes, community centres and is now consulting on what to do about football pitches. Communities have had to take on extra responsibilities – either as voluntary groups or social enterprises or through community councils – to bridge the gap.
Our NHS in North Wales is under so much pressure – not least because we have an older population than other parts of Wales and England – that the Betsi Cadwaladr health board is now facing a £106m deficit by April 2017. If it has to balance the books it will have to cut spending by 10% and the only way to do that is to cut staff and treatments.
To cap it all off, a freeze on the North Wales Fire and Rescue Service budget for some years has culminated in a proposal to cut one of Wrexham’s two whole-time fire engines and 24 firefighters’ jobs. At a time when Wrexham’s in the grip of an ongoing arson problem, with a growing population and a new prison on our doorsteps, it’s a nonsensical idea. The cut will save £900,000 – that’s about the size of a bankers’ bonus in the City of London.
Because Austerity was always a bit of a one-way street. It turns out we weren’t in it together. The poor, the disabled, the elderly and workers got clobbered by the cuts in services they relied upon while the rich got a tax cut. Oddly enough, the bankers avoided any kind of austerity as their jobs were secured with public money and they resumed their life of fat bonuses. The rich have got richer under austerity and the gap has grown wider. And now the new Tory Chancellor has the cheek to say that getting rid of the deficit is no longer a priority – so all those cuts were for nothing.
That’s why I’m proud that my party, Plaid Cymru, has challenged the ideology that drives Austerity and offered a way out that promotes investment in our economy, to create well-paid jobs and develop innovative industries and new enterprises. We need to protect our existing public services as well – and that’s why I’ll be joining the protest against the plan to cut Wrexham’s fire engine on November 5th through the town’s centre. Austerity means cuts and, in this case, cuts cost lives.