Labour opposes Conservative budget cuts

Response by Councillor Ian Gilbert to the Conservative 2013 budget for Southend. All Independent councillors bar one voted with Conservatives.

Response by Councillor Ian Gilbert to the Conservative 2013 budget for Southend. All Independent councillors bar one voted with Conservatives.

 

We meet at a gloomy time for our economy and for public finances in particular. We are faced with a budget that raises tax and cuts services. The airshow, the delivery of black sacks. Our children’s centres. Envirnomental Health. Customer Services. The pier. Social Services. Support for the disabled. Parks maintainence. Toilet cleaning. Resources to tackle domestic violence. Resources to tackle drug and alcohol addiction. The administration has already forced through the imposition of council tax on the unemployed and the disabled for the first time. And with the current news, the cut in the food safety budget looks a little disturbing.

 

It is a sign of the times that we can reduce the size of our planning team owing to lack of work for them to do. We lost over a hundred businesses more than were created in Southend last year.

 

7.4% of 16-24 year olds are out of work and claiming benefits, as of last month. That’s not quite the worst figure in Essex but it’s close. In fact madam mayor I can only find six districts in the whole of the South and the whole of the East of the country that have worse figures.

 

Madam Mayor, it a sobering statistic that a young person is more likely to be on the dole in Southend than they are in Liverpool or Salford, or Yorkshire. I hope members opposite realise that in the light of such statistics members of my group will react with justified anger to anything that smacks of complacency or bragging from the administration.

 

Madam mayor, against this backdrop even the prospect of a Wembley final may not lift members’ spirits that much. Actually, we’d probably better not touch the subject of football stadiums.

 

I am well aware that we are in the midst of huge spending cuts set by Whitehall, that massively reduce our freedom to act. How then do we judge this budget and the performance of the administration at this moment?

 

Well these are tough times, and I don’t want to be unfair to the Leader. It certainly wouldn’t be fair to compare his performance to what we might like to do in a more benign climate. I thought I’d pick a somewhat easier benchmark, and I’d compare their performance to what their own government says they should be doing.

 

I know that Eric Pickles gets invited down by local Conservatives to be applauded at black tie dinners. I know that they are loyal to their MPs and their government’s programme, so surely they won’t object to being judged by their yardstick.

 

So what does Eric Pickles and the coalition government say that we should have done? Well, he says that “All councils have a moral duty to freeze council tax,” yes, he said that in the commons when he announced the funding settlement – a moral duty to freeze council tax. Well that’s not a good start is it? We may be arguing about 0.2% later, but nobody here thinks that council tax can be frozen this year.

 

What does Eric Pickles think of making the poor and disabled pay a share of council tax? Well commenting on Cornwall’s plans which are rather similar to the ones that the leader forced though he said That struck me as being obscene.” Councils could instead focus on helping people find work, he said. “I thought it was a singularly unambitious scheme, just taxing people who are in receipt of council tax benefit rather than helping them get into work, dealing with mistakes and fraud.”

 

Perhaps Councillor Holdcroft could tell us in his summing up how it feels to see his policies be labelled obscene by his own government.

 

Eric Pickles says that councils should share services. “By sharing back-office services, they’ll be able to protect the front line – and even improve the choice and services that’s on offer to local residents.” He says. So how have we done? Well there are friendly Conservative held councils all around fully behind Eric Pickles surely? Well I know there have been a few things, but certainly no really big savings have been achieved by joint working, or if they have, they’ve not been enough. Eric Pickles say we should share senior staff. Only one of our management team is shared at the moment I believe.

 

I’ll avoid dwelling on Eric Pickles’ suggestion that we should doing without a chief executive altogether, tempted as I am to ask the Town Clerk’s advice on this one.

 

I did consider going through the secretary of state’s fifty proposals but we’d probably all lose the will to live. We do have a coffee shop in at least one library. I suppose I might give the administration a tick for that.

 

No Madam Mayor, it seems that the administration has failed pretty much all of Eric Pickles’ tests for saving money, safeguarding services and not increasing tax. This budget contains many cuts to front line services and we’re not freezing council tax. And we’re supposed to be the council of year.

 

Madam mayor, this may seem like political knockabout, but I think there is an extremely serious issue here. It seems that Conservatives in Westminster are inhabiting a completely different world to the Conservatives in local government, and this has major consequences for us here today. To be blunt at least one side must be living in cloud cuckoo land, and whilst I certainly know that it’s possible to disagree with what your government is doing nationally, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask Councillor Holdcroft to explain this disconnect.

 

So that’s the context, let’s turn to what is before us in this budget.

 

I’ll start with our airshow. Members of my group have been saying for a number of years that the airshow cannot be a priority for public money in these austere times. This does not mean we agree with the way the administration has handled the issue.

 

When we have previously questioned the level of public subsidy given to the airshow, Councillors sitting opposite have said that it is absolutely crucial to the prestige of the town and vital to our economy. Conservative Councillors have stood up and said that the airshow literally brings in millions to the town and we can’t put that at risk. To change their position almost overnight on publication of this budget does little for the credibility of the administration or the council.

 

If when passing the last budget, Conservatives had been clear that would be the last airshow delivered in that way with that amount of public money, we would have given an opportunity for others to step in, or for some alternative to be found. It may have been a long shot, but it would have been a more honest and practical approach than this last minute knifing.

 

I had the privilege of chairing an economic & environmental project team talking to businesses in town. One medium sized company based just over the road told me that they have never ever been approached by the council with a view to contributing to the airshow.

 

As an aside, a very large cost pressure for the airshow – more than the cost of the planes I believe – is the charge levied by Essex Police for policing the event. I’d be interested to know whether the Conservative leader of the council has sought to negotiate with the Conservative Police & Crime Commissioner about this.

 

Madam Mayor I will listen to any proposal that would save the airshow in some form that would not further sacrifice public services in the town, but at this late hour I cannot honestly see how this could be delivered.

 

Whatever the Leader of the Council might say, the opposition does not exercise the same day to day influence on the running of council and the oversight of officers drawing up the budget in the way that he and his Executive Councillors can. It is simply ridiculous to assume that we could fundamentally re-write the budget.

 

Nevertheless, opposition groups have worked constructively to put forward proposals which significantly improve the budget as presented to us by the administration.

 

My key concern is about children’s centres. The £55thousand saving in the budget is to be part of annual savings of £224thousand. This is a huge sum of money. It is 16% of the planned budget in cash terms. After inflationary pressures are taken into consideration this will probably amount to a real terms cut of around 20%.

 

Let us not forget that we have already seen a large sum of money taken out of the children’s centre budget with a management restructure and the downgrading of two smaller centres. I simply do not believe that you can cut a budget by a fifth in real terms without real services being affected.

 

These centres are a lifeline to many families. They are not just about childcare, though affordable childcare is a key issue for our economy and our society. They are not just about advice and support, though these are vital. Advice and support can break a cycle of bad parenting that has continued through generations. They can offer practical support to get parents back to work. They can fulfil a vital health roles and contribute to better educational outcomes. Whenever I visit Summercourt in my ward or any of our children’s centres, you can feel a warm loving and supportive environment. I’m also struck by the fact that our staff are not only very committed to what they do, they are extremely knowledgeable about children’s health and educational well-being.

 

It is an unpleasant fact that however much the government seek to manage the statistics, more children are growing up in poverty. We need more of these services not less.

 

Let’s not forget, going back to hard numbers – the cut to the children’s centres is about a 5th in real terms. If the administration believes our children’s centres are so inefficient that these savings can be made purely through efficiency gains, let them say so. And if the savings can be found, with our proposal at least some of them can be re-invested, because these services are going to be needed more not less in the coming year.

 

Turning to other specific items in our budget proposal, we believe that it is a travesty that the administration is proposing to reduce the resources available for tackling domestic violence. This is huge problem that blights lives and which has been insufficiently resourced for a long time. It seems that whenever there is a serious incident, and some failings on behalf of the authorities, a lack of communication between agencies always seems to be a major factor. Yet we are cutting the post who’s job it is to ensure that communication happens.

 

In this as with many staff reductions the administration’s argument is completely illogical. On the one hand they say they are the Council of the Year, supremely efficient. On the other hand they try to tell us that there are posts that we can get rid of and we’ll hardly notice them going. I don’t believe we have staff sitting around drinking coffee all day who contribute nothing to the town, and I believe that each and every post reduction will reduce the service we provide. I only wish we could present a proposal that would safeguard more of their jobs.

 

I fully understand the logic of holding posts vacant so as to avoid redundancy wherever possible, but this just means we experience the loss of service before we’ve discussed it here in council. I defy anyone to say that they haven’t noticed services become more stretched, taking longer

 

Other items of savings we propose are smaller, but I believe these small items will have an effect in promoting and maintaining tourism and the economic health of the town more widely, as Councillor Longley has said.

 

This list of measures are a compromise, the are not what me, or Councillor Longley or Councillor Terry would have written down by ourselves, but I have always thought it strange that in politics people never seem to be able to admit the value of an honourable compromise. The overall affect is a better budget providing a better services than the one we were originally presented with.

 

These measures have to be paid for. I am pleased that we have been able to put forward a budget proposal that includes a modest draw-down on reserves. This is the worst possible time to cut services. Were I planning a budget from scratch I would have proposed a larger managed reduction. We have to keep reserves, but we are towards top end of what our chief finance officer believes is reasonable and keeping any services going when people need them most is of value in and of itself.

 

The singling out of the behavioural support service is not, I must stress in any way because we do not value the work done or do not appreciate the importance of the services. But it something which I believed there was wide agreement that it should not be funded by the council indefinitely when money for it has been diverted to schools, therefore it was the most appropriate item to replace with money from reserves. In schools policy like everything else, this government shows contempt for the role of local government, it is clear that this government does not want us involved in schooling. As in anything else our room to oppose the will of central government is limited.

 

Nobody wants to increase council tax if there were other ways to pay for vital services. The additional cost to the average tax-payer of our measure is 4 or 5 pence. I would remind the Conservatives that when they voted to make the disabled and unemployed pay council tax for the first time, resulting in bills of an extra 4 or 5 pounds a week the portfolio holder pointed out it was equivalent to an extra couple of pints or packet of fags. I wonder if I’ll hear arguments today as to why forcing the disabled to pay 4 or 5 pounds a week is fine but 4 or 5 pence for everybody is dreadful.

 

I considered coming up with a budget proposal that addressed our group’s two biggest objections, children’s centres and the domestic violence coordinator, without any council tax increase at all beyond what was planned by the administration. The £75thousand from reserves and a few other savings we were considering would have done it. It would have made good headlines in the short term, but I think that would have been less than honest, because only with the extra £120,000 in the base budget can we make a credible case for protecting these things from cuts not just this year but in future years as well.

 

Madam Mayor, let me return to the theme of public services in general. They are things which tie us together. Councillor Terry is absolutely right to lambast the government’s attitude to public services, their actions exhibit a mixture of contempt and neglect for local government.

 

The proposals we make today will not change the world, or even the town in a vast way. They will however be a small marker placed down that we care about public services and will fight to keep them.

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