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The Price of Austerity in England

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Kev Standishday is a personable, middle-aged social worker in the British county of Northamptonshire, a 90-minute drive northwest of London. He dresses casually, his face dominated by a striking white pointed goatee. While Standishday’s specialty is counseling troubled families, these days he works for the public-sector union UNISON, commuting by car to a two-story brick office building from the picturesque village of Little Harrowden, where he lives with his wife and five kids.

There is no secondary school in Little Harrowden, so Kev’s daughter has to take a bus each morning to the nearby town of Kettering. The county ended up in such a mess in the austerity years following the 2008 financial crisis that it had to file for bankruptcy in 2018; as a result, those bus trips are no longer subsidized. So now the Standishdays have to pay £700 a year (nearly $1,000) for the privilege of sending their child to school. The cost hurts.

As a social worker in a cash-strapped county, Kev saw his pay essentially frozen for several years. In a feckless attempt to balance its books, Northamptonshire took thousands of county employees out of national pay-and-conditions contracts, imposing wage freezes, unpaid furloughs, and other cost-saving changes. But that presented new challenges. “We can’t recruit and retain staff,” Kev says, “because conditions are so poor.”

Since 2010, UNISON estimates, the cost of living has increased by 27.6 percent. During that time, however, county employees received only 5.5 percent in wage increases, translating into a huge decline in living standards for workers who weren’t paid much to begin with. Kev says a teaching assistant in the county these days tops out at about £14,000 ($18,000) per year. As a result, there’s been a brain drain, with qualified people moving to higher-wage locales.

Unlike the United States, Britain doesn’t have a constitutionally delineated federal system that delegates powerful legislative, tax-raising, and regulatory powers to local authorities. Instead, it depends on a largely informal division of duties.

“British local government is a hodgepodge of centuries’ worth of development,” explains Ashley Walsh, head of policy and research for the nonpartisan High Pay Centre. While Parliament funds the National Health Service and the education system, other services—such as those for the mentally ill, as well as programs for foster children, drug-treatment centers, and local transport and road maintenance—fall on the counties or, in the larger urban areas, on city councils. The cities tend to be controlled by the Labour Party; most of the counties are Conservative.

Unlike American states, British counties cannot impose their own income or sales tax. Instead, they rely on what is called a council tax, which is levied on properties. Depending on the value, property owners fall within one of eight bands. The money raised from this tax, however, has never been sufficient to fully fund council services; as a result, these tiers of government are largely reliant on Parliament’s largesse.

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !