Britain's austerity plan leaves many bracing for painful changes

Britain is about to undergo an extreme makeover. And Festus Grant is worried.

The 71-year-old was crippled by a stroke early this year, and he doesn't know how he would have coped without the "angel of mercy" who knocked on his door a few days after he came home to his modest flat after three months in the hospital.

The care worker from the Stroke Assn. helped him piece his life back together. She arranged follow-up trips to the doctor and signed him up for a shuttle service that takes him shopping once a week.

But her visits are set to end in a month. Funding for her program is being axed, a victim of budget cuts by the local authority.

"She has been there for me.... I wouldn't know where to go, what to do," said Grant, who walks with difficulty and whose right arm is nearly useless. "Her work is very important, not just for me now, but others who will follow me."

The cutback is part of the most stinging national austerity plan in decades, one that will shrink the British state to a degree not even former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with her passion for small government, was able to accomplish 30 years ago.

Britain's ruling coalition, led by the Conservative Party, insists that such a drastic retrenchment is necessary because years of free spending under the previous Labor government have left the nation broke. To erase a soaring budget deficit, the coalition intends to gouge a whopping $128 billion from the public purse in four years.

The sweeping plan has earned some admirers across the Atlantic, where some lawmakers are considering applying similar shock therapy in the U.S.

On the ground here in Britain, though, residents are bracing themselves for painful changes that will touch virtually every part of the country, and almost every aspect of life. Since the end of World War II, Britons have looked to the state for everything from free healthcare to financial assistance for mothers, a culture of governmental responsibility that's about to be upended.

In the northern city of Manchester, the police force will have to get rid of nearly 3,000 employees, including hundreds of officers, over the next four years. In southern England, in London and neighboring Kent, scores of libraries are at risk of being shut down, as are parks and recreation centers.

Welfare spending will be slashed by 8%, with limits placed on benefits for some long-term unemployed and chronically ill people. Legal aid to the poor is being scaled back, money to build affordable housing will be halved, and some homeless shelters will close.

For the old, meals on wheels and other community care services are in jeopardy. For the young, sports programs will be eliminated, even as the country gears up to host the Summer Olympics in London in 2012.

The military is downsizing; so is the prison system. Universities will lose professors, the arts will be squeezed and nearly 500,000 public sector jobs are on the chopping block, adding to the 2.5 million people already out of work.

"Cuts at these levels are unprecedented, and far, far exceed anything Margaret Thatcher achieved," political commentator and author John Lanchester wrote recently in the Guardian newspaper.

Most of the cuts, unveiled last month, have yet to come into force. So far, a majority of Britons seem to accept the need for some belt-tightening to get the nation's books in order.

But as state workers start receiving pink slips, as financially strapped parents dig deeper into their pockets to buy school uniforms for their kids, as elderly shut-ins miss out on regular home visits from caregivers, that "keep calm and carry on" attitude may fade. Already, tens of thousands of students have marched on London twice to protest — sometimes violently — planned increases in college tuition fees.

"There is an incredible sense of anger that is beginning to build up, and that anger can explode and manifest itself in all kinds of different ways," Len McCluskey, the head of Britain's largest union, warned this week.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who took power in May, is gambling that by front-loading as much of the cuts as possible, he's bought his government some time for the public to grow accustomed to the new reality, that economic growth will revive and that voters will be in a forgiving mood by the next election in 2015. Cameron is promoting a new, if still fuzzy, vision of Britain called the Big Society, which calls on residents to rely less on the state and instead engage in community volunteerism. But critics deride it as a shiny gloss on replacing basic public services with do-it-yourself government.

By ordering deep cuts, Britain is aligning itself with other European nations, such as Spain and Germany, that have introduced similar austerity plans to mollify international investors worried over government indebtedness.

But Alan Johnson, Labor's finance spokesman, told lawmakers to look closer to home, across the Irish Sea, for a devastating preview of the consequences of cutting too much too soon. In December, Ireland's finance minister declared that the markets and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund supported Dublin's massive budget cuts.

"He told the Irish Parliament that his austerity plan meant that they had turned the corner," Johnson said. "Four months later, they slid back into recession."

In a humiliating about-face, Dublin decided this week to apply for an international bailout expected to cost more than $100 billion.

Here in Britain, among the hardest hit by the budget cuts will be the country's regional police constabularies.

Manchester's police chief, Peter Fahy, has the grim task of eliminating 2,950 posts, including some through the forced retirement of senior officers. Reducing the workforce by nearly a quarter should save about $211 million over the next four years.

"I've been a police officer for 30 years," Fahy said. "I've never had to stand up in front of my staff and deliver that sort of message. There were tears."

Farther north, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Joyce Matthews has watched children boost their self-esteem and shun their couch-potato ways through a national sports program that helps build school PE offerings, runs after-school sports clubs and organizes meets. The program covers 35,000 students in Newcastle, a historic city built on the coal industry.

Matthews is the first to acknowledge that plenty of bureaucratic fat could be trimmed from the $256-million program. But neither Matthews nor any of her colleagues in the program anticipated the news that eventually came down.

"We were probably prepared, worst-case scenario, for 50% funding cuts," Matthews said. "We hadn't expected 100%."

Grant, the stroke victim, is nervously awaiting word next April as to whether his modest pension of about $1,800 a month will be reduced.

The former subway driver is proud of the fact that he was never without a job from his teens until his retirement six years ago. He now lives in public housing here in quiet Wimbledon, a stone's throw from where the annual tennis tournament is held.

Rent costs him a little less than $800 a month, about the limit he can afford. But the government is allowing some public-housing rents to rise closer to market rates, part of a wide-ranging overhaul of the housing-benefits system. It's not clear whether Grant will be affected.

But life already looks more precarious without the help of his advisor from the Stroke Assn. Any downgrading of his financial situation would seriously tarnish what he had hoped would be his golden years.

"I don't want to be a nuisance to anybody," Grant said with typical British reserve, before adding, "If they take more from me … I won't be able to survive."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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