My Lords, I rise with a heavy heart to raise questions concerning the ability of local councils to deliver essential services to their communities. I welcome the prospect of increased short-term government funding but, without that being increased and continued or there being rises in council tax, whatever the rights and wrongs of that, I question whether it will be sufficient to enable councils to meet rising demand, especially in social care. That issue is of immense concern, but others have spoken eloquently about it.
I want to take your Lordships to Worcester—what better destination could there be?—to consider not social care but another service that is under pressure as the county council struggles to make ends meet: the archive service. A proposal has recently been made to cut £405,000 from a £700,000 budget that is already down from £1.2 million in 2010. That proposal is being considered at the moment and causing immense concern. This is the sort of cutting to the bone and into the bone to which the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, referred. The Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service—I declare an interest, though not a financial one—cares for our diocesan archives, including items of great public significance such as Shakespeare’s marriage bonds. The service is located in the wonderful award-winning Hive, unique as a joint university/city library, which was voted in 2017 by the Archives and Records Association as the record-keeping service of the year. It was found as being,
“determined to maintain a quality service to the wider community in the county despite acute financial pressures”,
with tribute paid to the,
“range and depth of activities and success in placing itself at the heart”,
of cultural life. The irony is that, while devastating the service, the proposed £405,000 cut would amount to a saving of only 69p per resident per annum, equivalent to only 0.18% of the council’s social care expenditure. I suppose the proposal is indicative of how desperate the council feels.
Some might consider an archive service not to be an essential service, whether it be mandatory or discretionary. I beg to differ. It matters, as the British Archaeology News Resource put it, because of the possible,
“irretrievable loss of hundreds of years of dedication and expertise”.
The history of a place is not in the cold, dead stones or the reams of paper in an archive; it is in the people who care for them, know the records intimately and pass on that passion and knowledge to others. It is in the people who bring stones and those manuscripts to life. Lose them and you lose the history. Now, more than ever, we need the lessons of history.
I have great respect for our county councillors and I very much hope they will reject these proposed cuts, which would be a false economy and represent a major reputational as well as cultural loss. Cultural and heritage services are an essential part of our civilised society, of which we can be justly proud. I raise the matter in this debate as just one example of the desperate measures some councils are considering to make only very small cuts in overall budget, and the resultant threat to the delivery of essential services.