The Year the Town Hall Shrank (UK, BBC)
This three part landmark documentary series tells the story of how one city – Stoke on Trent – struggles to cope with the impact of the largest funding cuts to local government ever imposed by central government.
The depth of the cuts force not just the Council to reconsider what they do and how they do it but the people of Stoke to ask themselves what they expect their Local Authority to do for them. Wittily and stylishly made by Dave Nath and James Newton, this is not just the story of Stoke, it is the story of us all as we go behind the rhetoric of whether we are all in it together in our age of austerity. Or whether it is right to take tough choices because we have become over dependent on services that we can simply no longer afford.
What’s been said about The Year the Town Hall Shrank:
That everyone should watch The Year The Town Hall Shrank (Thursdays BBC4) is too worn a cliché, so let’s hone it: Whitehall policy-makers should be forced to see it, Clockwork Orange style. When public services are taken away, people’s lives are ruined. At least look them in the eye.
The documentary was the first of three shot in Stoke last year, examining the impact of the local council being forced to slash £36m from its budget as part of nationwide austerity. It asked if we can really all be in this together, when there are sections of society that have no fat left to trim.
We met the librarian, locking up a library that will never open again, then shuffling tearfully off into retirement. We met the staff of a care home, their lives on hold while they waited for the axe, and the children of the home’s residents, worried their fragile old parents wouldn’t withstand being uprooted. But The Year the Town Hall Shrank wasn’t just a parade of miserable consequences, vital as this was. It was a demonstration of politics on the ground, with politicians and affected citizens within arm’s length of each other. Their battles were gripping.
The programme’s (successful) attempt to be thrilling meant it was also emotive, with no question that its sympathies lay with Stoke’s poor and vulnerable, and no debate about whether slashing the public sector is an unfortunate necessity. Alternatives weren’t discussed. But then, the film couldn’t provide balance by also showing us, say, the super-rich inconvenienced by having to pay slightly more tax. Because that hasn’t happened.
A timely three-part series filmed over a year in Stoke-on-Trent, charting the reactions of local politicians and voters alike as spending cuts begin to bite. This opening episode begins in December 2010 with the reactions of councillors as they absorb a £36m shortfall in council finances caused by an 8.1% cut in government funding. Stoke’s council is arguably bloated – it’s the city’s biggest employer – but this is likely to prove little consolation to those who depend, one way or another, on its services. An absorbing study of politics at its most mundane, and most important.
How many of us give much thought to local politics, let alone get involved? If I’m honest, my heart sank when confronted with the title The Year The Town Hall Shrank (BBC4).
Yet, at the end of the hour, I emerged not only entirely engaged with the subject but hopping mad at the cynical vote-catching that James Newton’s exemplary documentary expertly exposed as his cameras prowled the corridors of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Human decency took a hammering for the sake of power grabbing.
Despite the recent good news on Britain’s GDP, this winter is set to be another of economic discontent. For all the talk of growth, a vast proportion of the coalition’s budget cuts are yet to take hold. With that in mind, documentary makers Dave Nath and James Newton have scoured the country looking at the impact of the financial downturn so far, settling on Stoke-on-Trent. One of the country’s most impoverished cities, Stoke’s council has been slashed to bare bones with serious impact from the old people whose home is forced to close, to children’s centres and libraries on the verge of bankruptcy. The Year The Town Hall Shrank asks some serious questions about the future – but it’s also clear there’s no easy answers.