Recent events a wake-up call to politicians: austerity must end, we need a kinder, fairer way

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In My Opinion piece written for The Smithfield Gazette, June 2017

The last twelve months in British and global politics, along with incidents of domestic and international terrorism, and the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower in West London must surely be the wake-up call needed for those of us involved in public life to think again about what we do and how we do things.

The knife-edge outcome of the EU referendum last June, Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency, the ascendency of Macron and En Marche in France from a standing start, and the extraordinary result of our own General Election a few weeks ago, all point out the discontent electorates around the globe seem to have with the established ways of doing things, the failure of the political elite to build trust amongst the people, and the divisions in our society.

And is it any wonder, when it appears that the era of austerity, of doing things on the cheap, of reducing the size of the state, results in us failing to keep our citizens and visitors safe in either their homes or on the streets of our towns and cities. At the same time, we have penalised the poor and sick, especially those who find it hard to get work or to stay in employment because they have mental or physical disabilities.

We have allowed an angry intolerant language to enter our lexicon with media headlines about ‘layabouts’, ‘shirkers’, and ‘scroungers’, creating an underclass in society who inevitably begin to feel that the rest of the nation cares nothing for them. And it is the same media who constantly whip up resentment against immigrants, against the EU, and against public sector workers and politicians themselves, with snarling editorials alleging impropriety or that it is somehow wrong to be paid a fair day’s wage when employed for the common good.

Here in the City of London, where we are surrounded by almost limitless wealth, and our ancient form of local government itself has investment assets in the billions of pounds, we have permitted austerity to become a mantra with cost-cutting, service based reviews, and efficiency savings dominating decision-making at Guildhall, often at the expense of our employees and those who rely on our services. Of course, we must not allow profligacy or spending money for the sake of it, but surely we can do things differently here, in a fairer, kinder way.

The City of London Corporation has built its reputation over 1,000 years through its munificence, its philanthropy, its contribution to establishing a civilised society. We have built schools, hospitals universities, homes. We have fed the people of London through our markets. We protect 11,000 acres of open spaces and promote culture, heritage, and the arts. We also have a track record of looking after our own people, of being good and generous employers, engendering loyalty amongst our staff. And yet, in recent years, that sense of uniqueness has dissipated, swept along by the tide of austerity.

Maybe times are changing again for the better. The City’s decision to develop 3,700 new homes for Londoners, the purchase of 68 new homes right away to rehouse the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster, our investment in education amongst the disadvantaged communities in our neighbouring boroughs. All of that points in the right direction, an acknowledgement that we must do more to create a fairer, more equal society. I fear that if we don’t learn the lessons of the turbulent last twelve months, the City Corporation itself may fall foul of the recent revolution in the political world.

Deputy Edward Lord OBE was elected to Common Council in February 2001. He is now Deputy Chairman of the Establishment Committee and a Member of the Policy and Resources Committee.

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