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Origami and the wisdom of Robin Cook

By Jo Phillips

By Jo Phillips

How does the government expect local councils to continue funding local services despite the numerous cuts.

Words: Jo Phillips

It’s said to be impossible to fold a sheet of paper more than eight times, no matter how thin or big it is. The reason is pretty obvious because the number of layers doubles each time so the paper gets too thick and unwieldy to fold. It’s called geometric growth.

Turn that on its head and it’s what councils across the country are dealing with as they seek to balance the books while providing statutory services with less and less money – like trying to unfold a minute scrap of paper and spread it into something at least eight times as big. Years of austerity and cuts along with increasing responsibilities for social care, homelessness and more have left that metaphorical scrap of paper little more than a small blob like the ones that mysteriously end up in a jeans pocket. 

Local government touches all our lives far more than national government and we have all seen the reduction in services coupled with increases in council tax, car parking, planning, licensing and other charges. And it’s going to get a lot worse but not just temporarily while we weather the storm because some councils will be forced to make decisions that will change where and how we live for generations.  

I remember a conversation with the late Robin Cook about the importance of civic buildings and shared public space. He firmly believed that a healthy democracy flourishes when people have a sense of belonging and that is reinforced by the spaces and places we share. Libraries, schools, health centres, town halls, parks and gardens, sports facilities, theatres, arts and community centres. Funny that most of those have been hardest hit by years of austerity and are near the top of the list of cuts so councils can fulfil their basic statutory responsibilities.  

Of course there needs to be an overhaul of council tax, there needs to be proper centralised funding for social care linked to health services and councils can certainly do more to ‘sweat their assets’ without selling everything off to developers for a quick financial fix. But that’s not going to happen under the current government and it requires strategic thought and long term planning involving serious people and local communities who can see beyond the next election or two.

Many towns and cities will have benefitted from and still enjoy town halls, museums, libraries and spaces funded by philanthropists, albeit in some cases from the spoils of dubious trade or accumulated wealth. Those spaces that we share foster and nurture communities, ideas and ambitions. They provide shelter and comfort, a sense of belonging and escape, inspiration and conversation. During Covid many of them, run by volunteers and community groups became hubs for food banks and support for vulnerable people.  

I don’t think there’s a council in the country that doesn’t aspire to cleaner, greener, safer communities but how does dimming street lights to save money fit with safer streets? How does closing a community centre or a sports hall fit with helping people to lead healthier lives? How does cutting arts and library funding help inspire the next generation of creatives who contribute so much to local and national economies or simply provide the spark of imagination for children through a storytime session?

How does the government expect councils to cope? By trying to fold a piece of paper more than eight times perhaps? If there hadn’t been so many devastating cuts to local services there might have been somewhere to hold an origami class.

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