“Private enterprise 1 – Public sector 0,” – reviewing the 2017 Budget Statement
If the set dressing for the Chancellor’s 2017 Autumn Budget Statement was a combination of Brexit and global trade, the backdrop was a very familiar one – the long-standing Conservative preference for private enterprise over the public sector.
Proposal after proposal set out the vision of free trade and enterprise as the engines of growth, while public services were emphatically, pointedly ignored. Not only is this problematic for the library and information sector, much of which is taxpayer-funded, it is problematic for society and the economy as a whole, since it misses the fundamental point that ‘public’ and ‘private’ are both part of the same ecosystem.
Legislating for the whole economy
The Conservative habit of portraying the private sector as growth-oriented and the public sector as a dependency is based on several fundamental misconceptions.
Firstly, private-sector growth no longer equates to increased employment. If the Government’s future vision is of competing globally in ‘knowledge-intensive’ high-tech sectors, they must recognise that digital businesses employ fewer staff. In 2016, for example, Facebook – one of the most profitable US tech-sector businesses – employed around 17,000 people. While this creates a higher profit/staff ratio, it is no way to secure productive employment for all.
Secondly, the private sector needs a highly skilled, motivated and adaptable workforce. This workforce doesn’t spring fully-formed out of thin air. It has to be nurtured, educated, kept well and given opportunities for cultural and civic participation – all things delivered by a strong public sector.
Thirdly, recent history shows that enterprise thrives in established markets, but struggles with the investment needed to drive innovation. Take, for example, billion-pound industries like pharma and aerospace. Both of these depend on extracting the maximum value from data and intellectual assets and both have required very large-scale subsidy from the taxpayer to pump-prime innovation.
There are countless other benefits to a strong public sector, all of which benefit business owners and workers. This is why any Chancellor has to legislate in the interests of the ‘whole’ economy – public and private-sector – and not just focus on business in isolation. Sadly, this was a budget for business – and therefore in theory good for information professionals working in the corporate sectors - but at the expense of Local Government, social care and the NHS (which those same information professionals generally strongly support).
The real digital opportunity
The UK Government is not alone in wanting to turn silicon into gold. Most major nations worldwide are looking to digital technologies to unlock the next ‘great leap forward’ in terms of economy, productivity and growth.
However, most are making a similar mistake to that which was evident in last week’s Budget by – as Douglas Adams memorably put it – ‘mistaking the plate for the food’.
Digital is not an infrastructure proposition. It isn’t about bandwidth or wires or equipment. It is a revolution in the usefulness of the knowledge, data and information that flows across those wires and the ability of the average citizen to harness this potential. To succeed, “IT” has to be much less about the “T” and a lot more about the “I”.
Ministers are regularly invited by enthusiastic high-tech business owners to visit their state-of-the art facilities and spectate the latest ground-breaking innovation. What they often miss is the fact that 1 in 2 tech start-ups fail within the first 4 years of operation and that of those that survive into maturity, far fewer achieve stable profitability.
A real, lasting transformation to a ‘digital-first’ economy cannot be a castle built on air. In place of flashy initiatives it takes long-term strategic economic management, tax reform and – critically – investment in public services like libraries which serve as the frontline to digital skills for an increasingly young, highly diverse UK-wide demographic who will be the ‘digital’ workforce of tomorrow.
The Chancellor’s announcement of a raft of measures and funding to pump-prime advanced tech developments such as driverless cars and AI alongside the proposed £30m Digital Skills Fund is a case in point. How much greater could the impact of that £30m have been if it had been put into public libraries which develop digital skills every day on a highly cost-effective basis which target the hardest-to-reach in our communities? How many more great leaps forward could we make if we unlocked the potential of everyone in our society?
Where does this leave Local Government, health and education?
Much as Ed Milliband was mocked for forgetting to mention the economy in his 2014 Labour conference speech, the pages relating to Local Government, social care, the NHS and schools (other than a UK-wide version of the Maths Challenge) seemed to have gone missing from the Chancellor’s Budget 2017 announcement.
There is still no Local Government Finance Settlement, which means that the withdrawal of central funding is still the dominant economic logic. This means that Councils will need to deliver a raft of statutory and non-statutory services for local people based largely on a thin diet of Council Tax and Business Rates. This puts local Public Library Services directly in the firing line, as the LGA response to the Budget says:
“It is hugely disappointing that the Budget offered nothing to ease the financial crisis facing local services. Funding gaps and rising demand for our adult social care and children’s services are threatening the vital services which care for our elderly and disabled, protect children and support families.
This is also having a huge knock-on effect on other services our communities rely on. Almost 60p in every £1 that people pay in council tax could have to be spent caring for children and adults by 2020, leaving increasingly less to fund other services, like fixing potholes, cleaning streets and running leisure centres and libraries.”
While it places all Councils under real pressure, it also risks deepening inequality as more affluent areas ‘make do’ from local revenues but poorer ones – where people have less time and are less able to ‘volunteer’ to run services their taxes have paid for – lose out.
The reality of this ought to trigger an immediate and comprehensive action to preserve the benefit of public and other publicly-funded libraries for everyone.
The impact will not solely be felt by public libraries. Libraries are an ecosystem – a structure of connected services designed to meet people’s needs throughout the different stages of their lives. It will be equally acute in school and college libraries – fundamentally important to creating a literate nation with information and digital skills.
No such thing as a ‘nation’ – the devolution agenda
Much as an earlier Conservative leader announced that there was ‘no such thing as society’, the current administration is equally committed to moving away from the idea of a ‘nation’ (or ‘nations’ – with relatively little recognition of the unique and distinctive opportunities and needs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
The devolution agenda is much in evidence in the 2017 Budget, with announcements relating to Metro Mayors and the new devolution deal with West Midlands Mayor Andy Street. While both the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the ‘West Midlands Engine’ were mentioned alongside investments in infrastructure – particularly HS2 – the real agenda is clearly to transfer as much direct accountability as possible out of the hands of national Government and into those of regions, combined Authorities and big metropolitan conurbations.
While a shorter link between decisions about services and the users of those services is in principle a good idea, devolution on this scale is really only viable if accompanied by sufficient money and an overall regulatory framework which protects the interests of citizens. Handing off responsibility without resources is a recipe for the hollowing-out of all public services, including libraries.
Where we go from here
Although originally billed as the ‘upbeat budget’ which would ‘signal the end of austerity’, in practice the 2017 Budget has reaffirmed the three central principles of this administration’s economic policy: digital, devolution and austerity.
Given the reduction in the number of ‘fiscal events’ (annual budgetary announcements), this is likely to set the tone and context for library and information advocacy over the next four and a half years. This being the case, there are some important discussions we need to be able to have as a sector.
The first is about resilience. Given that the 2017 Budget signals no change in the ongoing cuts to public services, public libraries are going to need to keep close to the ground, build relationships with local leaders, continue to create value for their communities and prepare for the long haul. The same is true for school, prison, health, college and other parts of the sector which depend on public investment.
The second is about national leadership. We need to have an honest conversation amongst national leadership organisations about what can be achieved in the absence of a large-scale investment in the development of publicly-funded libraries. This includes continuing to raise libraries in the public policy agenda, to improve their visibility with the public, to build partnerships with organisations like the BBC who can help build audience. It also means being clear about governance and who is responsible for securing the long-term future of the library sector.
The third is about positioning ourselves around the digital agenda and continuing to advocate for the role of information professionals in securing future prosperity, including in knowledge-intensive businesses, research and innovation.
CILIP will continue to provide leadership and advocacy for the sector, and particularly to support and develop a talented, multi-skilled information profession. We will work with other partners across the UK to learn from and share best practice, to promote development in the distinctive agendas for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Most of all, we will stand in solidarity with librarians and information professionals, people who support them and the information users whose statutory rights to quality library services must be defended for the long-term.