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Tony Travers: the visible nature of austerity makes it global news

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British local government has become global news. The impact of eight years of austerity on councils in Britain has made them interesting to foreign correspondents based in the UK

“La mairie de Wigan a choisi de ne ramasser les ordures ménagères qu’une fois toutes les trois semaines” reported Le Monde earlier this year. Evidently, the idea that a municipality would only collect household rubbish once every three weeks was newsworthy in France.

In the summer, the New York Times reported “Northamptonshire has become a warning sign of the perilous state of Britain’s local governments”. The paper has subsequently retuned to the subject. Last week, Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights concluded in an official report “Local governments [in the UK] are even struggling with the basic services they are statutorily obligated to provide” and “many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centers, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined”.

Amber Rudd, the new work and pensions secretary, dismissed the UN report, saying: “I was disappointed to say the least by the extraordinary political nature of his language”. In fairness to the government, the UN has looked at ‘extreme poverty’ in the United States twice and now in the UK, but not at problems in any other European country. It is hard to believe life for poor migrant residents in the banlieus of French cities is less impoverished than for their UK equivalents.

But the government should ponder why overseas commentators are getting the wrong picture of Britain. How could journalists and experts so misjudge a country? The answer lies in the precise nature of the way ‘austerity’ has been approached. Reducing the deficit by cutting local services hardest was always going to make the impact of service reductions highly visible.

Rapidly increasing expenditure on State pensions and international aid since 2010 may have fitted government priorities, but it has meant deep cuts to basic municipal services in the UK. Overseas journalists are probably influenced in their understanding of the UK by whether their streets are clear or dirty. It’s not a bad measure, actually.

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