On Friday I went to the Conservative Cornwall Council Cabinet meeting where they decided to close the only public swimming pool in Cornwall’s most heavily populated town because it is not profitable. They refused to make any commitment or assign any money to a new one. In Exeter, the Labour council are building a state-of-the-art new swimming pool rather than shutting them down.
Swimming pools and sports centres aren’t something that local councils are obliged to provide by law. This allows councils to simply stop funding them when central government cuts bite.
It started me thinking about all the other things that the Conservatives have refused to fund in the last decade, under the cover of ‘austerity’. It’s not just the fact that our services are being cut. Social care, waste and recycling, road maintenance. It’s also the social fabric of our communities that they have eroded.
It started over a decade ago with libraries and public toilets. In some places town councils took them on, in others they just disappeared. More than a fifth have gone across the country. Then it was the council-subsidised buses. Over a third have disappeared in the last decade.In Falmouth alone, we have lost churches, cafes, local pubs, the bowling alley. Open spaces have been built on. These were the places elderly and young people alike used to meet, walk and talk in.
Taking one example – over 1300 children’s centres and 940 youth centres have been axed since 2010. Two are due to close in Falmouth alone next year. Annual spend per head on 5-17 year-olds has seen a “dramatic fall” from £158 in 2010-11 to £37 in 2020-21 according to a study by the YMCA. Spending on youth services has dropped by a staggering 71%. Denise Hatton, their chief executive, said: “In addition to a decade of funding failures, young people have spent the past two years adjusting to periods of staying at home, limited social interaction, education anxieties, and a whole host of worries…condemning young people to become a lonely, lost generation with nowhere to turn”. We have had to dip into a Town Council Educational Fund to provide something as simple as a once-a-week youth club for teenagers in Falmouth, just to provide them with the most basic of services. Our plans for a skatepark, radio studios and café in the park are all on hold because all the funding has dried up. Consecutive Conservative governments have abandoned our young people, their lack of investment starkly proportional to their lack of care.
Mrs Thatcher said that there was no such thing as society and this Conservative government seems to be accelerating the policies begun in 2010, to unpick our social fabric. More than ever now, post-Covid, we stay in our own houses, throwing digital stones at each other via social media. We need those public places back where we all used to meet, read, play, exercise and bond. We need to rebuild our idea of what society means - rebuild the places that used to foster close and supportive communities, brick by brick. That is what the next Labour government will do.