Home » The UK’s second-biggest city is so broke they can no longer keep the lights on

The UK’s second-biggest city is so broke they can no longer keep the lights on

The UK’s second-biggest city is so broke they can no longer keep the lights on

Once nicknamed “the workshop of the world” Birmingham was an industrial powerhouse in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s where William Murdoch invented the first gas-lantern, a technology later used to light streets across the world.

But today the UK’s second-largest city can no longer afford to keep its own streets brightly lit.

In September Birmingham City Council issued a 114 notice, effectively declaring it was bankrupt.

To claw back $600 million over the next two years, the council has approved a range of unprecedented budget cuts that will see streetlights dimmed and rubbish collected only once a fortnight.

Rubbish collection has been reduced to once every two weeks.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

“It’s like we’re living in the Dickens era, where the streets are going to be littered with rubbish and the lights are going to be off … it’s like this kind of dystopian nightmare,” Birmingham mother of three Ramandeep Kaur told 7.30.

“There’s nothing to look forward to … it’s quite a frightening time.”

Ms Kaur and her family will be hit harder than most by the city’s sweeping cuts.

Her 17-year-old son Harry has Down syndrome and has relied on a council-funded school taxi service since he was four years old. From September that service will stop.

A mother and her teenage son sit on a sofa.

Ramandeep Kaur, pictured here with her son Harry says living in Birmingham now is like being in the “Dickens era”.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

He will instead be given a budget to use public transport, but Ms Kaur says it’s a journey he can’t manage on his own.

“We’re left in a situation where I will either have to give up work and take him to school every day, or I will have to pay £40 ($77) per day for a taxi and a driver to get him to school,” she said.

“I always feel that my son is kind of seen as a cost burden, not just as a young person who wants to stay in education and do the things that he really loves.”

‘Rampant poverty’ 

A man smiles.

Kamran Shah says things in Birmingham have deteriorated over the past two years.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

The cuts will also see 25 of the city’s libraries close, money for children’s services slashed and a 100 per cent funding cut to the arts and culture sector by 2026.

University student Kamran Shah, 19, says “it’s not looking good” for young people in the city.

“If you’re not providing us with the things that we need, we can’t really help the city or help ourselves into a better position,” he told 7.30.

“Everything’s just gone really bad these past two years.

“For what it has and what it’s been, now it’s kind of at a standstill.”

Birmingham is one of the youngest cities in Europe, with nearly 40 per cent of its residents under 25 years old, according to both government and university studies.

Many in the city feel young people will be the worst affected by the cuts to frontline and preventative services.

A grouop of young men and women on a street.

40 per cent of Birmingham’s residents are under 25. Their future prospects appear to be grim.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

“This is the second-largest city in the sixth-richest country in the world and we have rampant poverty … children are growing up below the poverty line,” Birmingham youth mental health worker Nina Barbosa said.

Ms Barbosa works for England’s National Health Service (NHS) and says pressure on the system is “past crisis point”.

“We get about 70 to 80 referrals a day into our services of which, on a good day, we’ll take on about 20. On a bad day it’ll be far less,” she said.

“What we are already starting to see, as a consequence of what’s happening in the council, there are even bigger increases in the number of people who are being referred through to us, and those young people are even more unwell than they were before.”

‘Financial black hole’

A man sits and asks for money

Birmingham has the highest unemployment rate of all the UK’s major cities.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

Birmingham’s financial black hole was at least partially self-inflicted.

A gender-pay dispute settlement and the flawed implementation of a new IT system forced the council to admit it couldn’t afford to meet its financial obligations.

But Birmingham council leader John Cotton claims the city’s debts were compounded by austerity measures brought in by the Cameron government in 2010.

“The mistakes made in Birmingham have not occurred in a vacuum and councils are facing a perfect storm of smaller budgets but higher costs,” Mr Cotton said.

David Cameron looks grim.

Some say austerity measures brought in by the David Cameron government are partly to blame for Birmingham’s situation.(Reuters: Suzanne Plunkett)

Birmingham is one of the most recent UK councils to go bust. Since 2018 eight local governments in the UK have fallen into the red.

Nick Davies, programme director of British think-tank Institute for Government, says the austerity measures brought in under former prime minister David Cameron have degraded public services across the country.

The austerity measures included a reduction in government spending on welfare, local authorities, police, courts and prisons as well as the cancellation of school building programs.

“Services never completely crumble but we are seeing the closest equivalent to that,” Mr Davies said.

“The public find it very difficult to access general practice health services, adult social care services are rationed, there’s also huge backlogs in the criminal courts and our prisons are full to bursting point.”

National election looming

A middle-aged man of Indian heritage in a black suit speaks against a dark backdrop.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called a snap election for July 4.(Reuters: Kirsty Wigglesorth)

The dire state of public services in the UK, paired with a cost-of-living crisis, is expected to be a major driver for voters at the general election on July 4. 

Polls predict a Labour landslide for Sir Keir Starmer, which would put an end to 14 years of Tory governance. 

UK Labour’s ‘red wall’ across the middle and north of England crumbled in 2019, as the Conservative party picked up marginal seats with the promise of “levelling-up” the regions.

But the disparity between Britain’s capital London and cities like Birmingham remains stark.

Of the UK’s core cities, Birmingham has the highest number of people claiming unemployment support, with 12 per cent of residents relying on government benefits, compared to just five per cent in London.

Birmingham City Council's stone building.

Birmingham City Council declared it was effectively bankrupt in September.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

On average, people in Birmingham die three years younger than those living 160km away in London, while just under 50 per cent of all children in Birmingham are classed as living in poverty, compared to 32 per cent in the capital. 

Birmingham is the largest city in England’s West Midlands and is a key battleground in the upcoming vote.

The once-popular Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street was toppled in local elections last month, a blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s hopes of retaining support in middle England.

But faith in politicians is at an all-time low and those struggling to access support in Birmingham aren’t confident a new Labour government can solve their problems.

A mother and her teenage son talk to each other while sitting on a sofa.

Ramandeep Kaur feels her son Harry is “seen as a cost burden”.(ABC News: Adrian Wilson)

“I don’t feel reassured at the moment by any of the parties. Nobody’s talking about disability, nobody’s really talking about social care,” Ms Kaur said

“It will take them a long time to resolve the situation and make our lives better.”

Ms Barbosa believes a change in government at a national level is the only way to take her city forward.

“This particularly conservative government have been extraordinarily brutal on many, many fronts and seem to have no embarrassment about driving the second-largest city into a grave for the next two generations,” she said.

“I hope that enough pressure can be put on the incoming Labour government, that I expect we will have, that they will stop this.”

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