This is a dispatch from David Cameron’s Britain, the country that could be waiting for us at the other end of the polling booths and the soundbites and the spin. I didn’t have to take a time machine to get there; I just had to take the District Line. In 2006, a group of rebranded “compassionate Conservatives” beat Labour for control of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, a long stretch of west London. George Osborne says the work they have done since then will be a “model” for a new Conservative government, while Cameron has singled them out as a council he is especially “proud” of. So squeezed between the brownish dapple of the Thames and the smoggy chug of the Westway, you can find the Ghost of Cameron Future. What is it whispering to us?
Hammersmith and Fulham is a sprawling concrete sandwich of London’s rich and London’s poor. It starts at the million-pound apartments on the marina at Chelsea Harbour – white and glistening and perfect – and runs past giant brownish housing estates and Victorian mansions, until it staggers to a stop on Shepherd’s Bush Green, where homeless people sit on the yellow-green grass drinking and watching the SUVs hurtle past. Here, high incomes squat next to high-rises in one big urban screech of noise. In such a mixed area, the Conservatives had to run for power as a reconstructed party “at home with modern Britain”. They promised to move beyond Thatcherism and make the poor better off. They were the first to hum the tune that David Cameron has been singing a capella in this election.
People who took this at face value were startled by the first act of the Conservatives on assuming power – a crackdown on the homeless. They immediately sold off 12 homeless shelters, handing them to large property developers. The horrified charity Crisis was offered premises by the BBC to house the abandoned in a shelter over the Christmas period at least. The council refused permission. They said the homeless were a “law and order issue”, and a shelter would attract undesirables to the area. With this in mind, they changed the rules so that the homeless had to “prove” to a sceptical bureaucracy that they had nowhere else to go – and if they failed, they were turned away.
We know where this ended. A young woman – let’s called her Jane Phillips, because she wants to remain anonymous – turned up at the council’s emergency housing office one night, sobbing and shaking. She was eight months pregnant. She explained she was being beaten up by her boyfriend and had finally fled because she was frightened for her unborn child. The council said they would “investigate” her situation to find “proof of homelessness” – but she told them she had nowhere to go while they carried it out. By law, they were required to provide her with emergency shelter. They refused. They suggested she try to find a flat on the private market.
For four nights, she slept in the local park, on the floor. She is still traumatised by the memories of lying, pregnant and abandoned, in one of the wealthiest parts of Europe. The Local Government Ombudsman investigated but the council recording of the case was so poor she said it “hindered” her report. After a long study, she found the council’s conduct amounted to “maladministration”. Since they came to power, the Conservatives are housing half as many homeless people as Labour – even though the recession has caused a surge in homelessness. That’s a huge number of Janes lying in parks, or on rotting mattresses by Hammersmith Bridge.
Why would they do this? The Conservative administration was determined to shrink the size of the state and cut taxes as an end in itself. Rather than pay for it by taking more from the people in the borough with the most money, they slashed services for the broke and the broken first. After the homeless, they turned to help for the disabled. In their 2006 manifesto, the local Conservatives had given a cast-iron guarantee: “A Conservative council will not reintroduce home-care charging”. It was a totemic symbol of leaving behind Thatcherism: they wouldn’t charge the disabled, the mentally ill or the elderly for the care they needed just to survive.
Within three months, the promise was broken. Debbie Domb, 51, is a teacher who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994. She had to give up work, and now she needs 24/7 care. After being lifted up by a large metal harness and placed in her wheelchair so she can talk to me, she explains: “This was always such a great place to live if you were disabled. You were really treated well. Then this new council was elected and it’s been so frightening… The first thing that happened when they came in was that they announced any disabled person they assessed as having ‘lower moderate’ needs was totally cut off. So people who needed help having a shower, or getting dressed, had that lifeline taken away completely. Then they started sending the rest of us bills.”
She “panicked” when a bill came through saying she had to pay £12.50 for every hour of care she needed. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do this?’ The more care you need, the higher your bill, so the most disabled people got the highest charges. Everyone was distraught. I had friends who had to choose between having the heating on in winter and paying for their care … I know a 90-year-old woman with macular degeneration who can’t see, and she had to stop her services. There are lots of people who have been left to rot, with nobody checking any more that they’re OK, and I’m sure some of them have ended up in hospital or have died.” One of the council’s senior social services managers seems to have confirmed this, warning in a leaked memo that the charges could place the vulnerable “at risk”.
Debbie co-founded an organisation to fight back – the Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition Against Community Care Cuts – and, after appealing, she finally had her charges cancelled. “But there are a lot of people who can’t appeal,” she says. “You’re talking about very vulnerable people – the very old, the mentally ill, the blind. A lot don’t know how, or would be ruled to have to pay anyway, because the rules are so arbitrary. Now they’re being taken to debt-collection agencies for non-payment. I know an 82-year-old woman who’s never been in debt in her life who is being taken to a debt-collection agency for care she needs just to keep going… They want volunteers to do it instead. But you don’t want to have to ask your friends or a volunteer to pull up your knickers for you.”
Each year since the Conservative council was elected, the pressure on the housebound has increased. Meals
on Wheels brings one good, hot meal a day to people who can’t get out. The council jacked up the charges for it by £527 a year – so half of the recipients had to cancel it. A local Labour councillor documented that the council rang up a 79-year-old woman with dementia, and when she seemed to say she didn’t need any food, they cut off her meals.
The cost of almost all council services has sky-rocketed, to fund tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy. David Cameron says he wants to make Britain “the most family-friendly country in the world” with “childcare as a top priority”, but his showcase council has increased charges for childcare by a reported 121 per cent – a fact that makes the warnings about Michael Gove’s planned “top-up fees” for nursery places seem even more ominous.
As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.
Ricky Scott, 18, tells me what it used to be like: “It was a really good place. When I left school they found me a part-time job at Sainsbury’s – they taught me how to write a CV – and they persuaded me to go to college. They gave you a place to go to stay out of trouble, they got you into the gym, they helped us learn loads of stuff … They did a lot to teach us about knife crime and how to stop it. When my friend was stabbed they helped us organise a big campaign about knives.” After the youth club was closed, there was a surge in anti-social behaviour orders in the area. Ricky isn’t surprised. “People don’t want us on the streets, but then they take away the only place for us to go, so what do they expect? It feels like we used to have some good things but now they’ve all been taken away. It always gets taken away.”
And in this boarded-up youth club, in Debbie’s panic, in the image of Jane and her bump on the floor of the park, I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody opened their home to Jane, or volunteered to feed Debbie, or started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same. It’s as if Marie Antoinette called in Max Clifford, and he told her to stop saying “Let them eat cake” and start saying: “Let them form a workers’ co-operative to distribute cake on a voluntary basis.”
But it turns out that it’s not just the services on the council estates here that are threatened by the council – it’s the estates themselves. Recently the leader of the Conservative council, Stephen Greenhalgh, co-wrote a pamphlet called Principles for Social Housing Reform, recommending that Cameron adopt a radical new approach to council housing. He said it provides “barracks for the poor” and helps create “a culture of entitlement”, while “deliver