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Page last updated at 08:44 GMT, Tuesday, 11 January 2011
Churches say council cuts 'too harsh on the vulnerable'

Joe Wilson
By Joe Wilson
BBC Radio Lancashire

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Reverend Nicholas Reade
Bishop Reade said budget cuts are "unfair"

This week's announcement by Lancashire County Council of plans to save £179m could mark the launch of a landmark year for churches in our county.

The council needs to reduce its spending by an average of nearly £60m a year for the next three years and they aren't alone in making cutbacks.

Blackpool Borough Council are looking to shed nearly 1000 jobs as they attempt to save £32m and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council have already warned there will be compulsory redundancies as around half the public service jobs could go in an attempt to claw back £28m.

It's not only job losses and reduced public services that are worrying, the VAT rise to 20% and rising prices around us mean most things will cost more.

Opposition groups on each council are putting up what resistance they can. Unions are up in arms and there are serious questions being asked of the coalition government about whether they are making too many cuts too soon.

What is exercising churches is the impression they have that too much is being asked of the vulnerable. They see the cuts as being too harsh on services that are vital to those who have little or no ability to fight back.

'Not impressed'

At the time of Chancellor George Osborne's emergency budget, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Reverend Nicholas Reade, said: "It's going to be tough on those who are dependent on social services, tough on those who are dependent on housing benefit and all in all I'm not impressed as it will affect greatly the poorer end of society."

He continued: "We kept hearing that those with the broadest shoulders will carry the greatest burden, but it doesn't seem like that to me."

A few weeks later, in an interview just after the student rallies against tuition fees, the Bishop took one step further and urged Christians to take part in non-violent but meaningful protests against any injustices they feel are being unfairly laid at the doors of those who have little redress.

In his Christmas address, the Bishop said: "Perhaps it will need to be the note of anger in Our Lord's voice that we hear and proclaim in the coming year as we raise legitimate Christian protest on behalf of those losing their jobs, seeing their public services undermined, their hopes of higher education jeopardized or their fears realised through the creation of what increasingly seems like a less caring, more brutalized society and where vast bonuses form the contemptuous retort to any mention of restraint."

Bishop of Burnley, the Right Reverend John Goddard
The Bishop of Burnley supports Bishop Reade

Stringencies

In short, the Bishop is placing the Christian community, of which he is a leading member, to the fore of any resistance against what they see as "unfair" cuts our county and country faces.

Also speaking on BBC Radio Lancashire, the Bishop of Burnley, the Right Reverend John Goddard supported Bishop Nicholas and talked of "returning to a fairer society where compassionate values are paramount."

One thing is clear; those making the stringencies aren't making the cuts lightly. The leader of Lancashire County Council, Geoff Driver, told BBC Radio Lancashire: "I'm going to say sorry because it's not something I want to do, but it's about needing to cut your suit according to your cloth."

Blackpool County Council leader Peter Callow used BBC Radio Lancashire's breakfast programme to reveal the day he had to announce 200 job cuts as "one of the worst days in my life." He went on to say he was in a "heartbreaking position."

In Blackburn with Darwen, council leader Kate Hollern said: "Unfortunately the level of grant we have received from government means we've had no choice to but make the toughest decisions about cuts this council has ever seen."

Scapegoat

The Bishop of Blackburn would have much sympathy with these leaders as he sees these cuts to be primarily government rather than council-led and are the result of a starvation of central funding.

Around the churches there is growing anger that local councils seem to be made the scapegoat for the coalition's actions.

Churches do agree that some nasty decisions have to be taken if the country is to halt and repair its clearly flagging economy. What is horrifying them is the growing realisation that authorities will struggle to protect frontline services.

The Reverend Tim Horobin, vicar at St. James' Church in Lower Darwen asked who will pick up the slack? Speaking on our Sunday morning faith programme he said: "You have to look at the vulnerable that the service provision has been there for. Over years, leaders have been trained and projects developed to help people who need help. If these cutbacks are made, who will pick up the provision for the people?"

When asked where the savings could be made if they aren't made in the proposed ways Tim admits he does not know the answer. He is looking to use a consultation period to iron out a better settlement. "This is perhaps where the churches come in," he says. "I think the voluntary sector, and in particular faith groups, need to rise up again."

Living in caves

As the austerity begins to bite, other faith voices are likely to join the Diocese's calls for more compassion. They too see protection of the vulnerable as a fundamental belief.

Faith groups as a whole would like nothing more than for society to press the factory reset button on its moral compass and to begin again on a level playing field built on compassion, tolerance and a greater sense of community.

They don't want us to return to living in caves, they applaud much of what is around them and want to be at the fore of technological advancement, but faith groups also preach a fairer distribution of wealth with community at the core of their message. They are firmly against the survival of the fittest approach and now see worrying signs of this in some of the cutbacks that have been announced.

As we tip toe tentatively into what promises to be an economically uncertain 2011, they want non-believers who would otherwise dismiss the church to know that their faith is about the practicalities of life - like looking after each other, supporting those who struggle and not being afraid to take any flak that might ensue from standing up for their principles.

For many of the faith groups in Lancashire, 2011 is destined to be a year when the whole county begins to understand what they are really about.

Joe presents the faith programme on BBC Radio Lancashire from 6am each Sunday.




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