A Labour agenda for local government

Warren MorganThe Brighton and Hove City Council Budget meeting  ended in deadlock with the Greens refusing to compromise on their 4.75% requiring a £900,000 referendum, and the Tories refusing to compromise on their tax freeze requiring £850,000 further cuts.

In my speech to the meeting I set out why Labour opposes those two positions, why we have backed a compromise position of a 2% increase all along, and what a Labour council would do if elected next year.

You can view the webcast of my speech here starting at 00:37:40 – http://www.brighton-hove.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/122619

“Thank you Madam Mayor. The Budget we are debating and voting on today is like no other this council has debated before. Unprecedented cuts from government, an unprecedented proposal from the party in office. And as we have already heard, a great deal of politics. I’d like to begin my remarks by trying to draw us back to the realities of what we are deciding today, and the people who will be affected by the choices we make. Let’s look at the situations of two residents of this city.

The first, we will call him Dominic, is a Sussex graduate working in a digital media company in the city centre. He lives with his partner just off the Lewes   Road. He’s just read about the proposed council tax increase in the letter from pressure group leaders and academics in The Guardian on his iPad, while he enjoys a coffee following his shopping trip to Infinity Foods, where he doesn’t mind paying a bit more for organic. He feels good when he contributes to charity and good causes and thinks this rise is along the same lines. He can certainly afford another five pounds a month, and thinks it is a good way of sending a message to Eric Pickles.

The second, lets call her Donna, left school at 16 and works in a supermarket as well as ironing shirts for her sisters business. She lives with her two school age children in Whitehawk. She’s just been told about the proposed council tax increase by her neighbour who read about it in The Argus. She can’t afford to buy coffee out, and has to carefully budget for what she buys from Lidl or the Pound Store. She doesn’t qualify for council tax benefit but has already had to use the local food bank once, and is two months behind on the payday loan she took out to pay for her kids school uniform. She can’t afford another five pounds a month. She’s never heard of Eric Pickles, and is too tired to think about sending political messages.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which of these people I’m thinking of when I cast my votes today. Despite what we are told by the Tory press and politicians in Westminster, economic times are still not good. Household incomes have fallen by £1,600 since the last election. Wages are increasing below the rate of inflation, while energy bills are increasing by five or six times the rate of inflation. Most can’t see their personal financial situation improving this year, and one in three Brighton and Hove residents are struggling with debt. Part-time jobs, zero hours contracts, the bedroom tax, benefits cuts and minimum wage pay mean this is a recovery for only a few at the top.

When the Greens say it isn’t much, when they say it’s just a few pence a week or a few pounds a month more, they show more clearly than ever that they are out of touch with the vast majority of people in this city, out of touch with those struggling financially, out of touch with the reality of many people’s lives in this city that they claim to lead.

Why are we at this point, why have the Greens abandoned their December budget with its 2% increase? Is it genuinely to protect social care services? If that is so then why did their original budget propose cuts to social care but put in over three million in contingency funding, reserves and transition money in the Budget? Did they propose social care cuts whilst building in funding that ensured that, whatever happened tonight, those services would be funded? If that is true, was it worth the fear and worry this whole charade has caused to people who depend on those services?

Why were departments asked to volunteer for cuts instead of the Green administration undertaking a thorough review of what this authority does and where spending needs to be focussed? Why does the traveller team budget get an extra one hundred thousand pounds this year from the Greens? Why are there no cuts proposed to their communications budget of over nine hundred thousand pounds? A Green budget – no fewer press releases, no fewer tweets, but fewer services for vulnerable people. What other spending areas are the Greens protecting? Why have they made social care services the focus of their cuts? Why have they looked to cut care services first and other areas last?

Why the sudden change of course from Cllr Kitcat, who last year described the referendum option as “mad” and “unworkable”? Was it pressure from those Green councillors who have pledged not to support a Green budget that contained any cuts at all? Presumably as even the Green 4.75% budget includes cuts they wouldn’t even vote for that. Was it simply to avoid voting the same way as Labour, as happened last year, so they have something better to put on their election leaflets?

So why, we are asked, will we not let the people decide in a referendum? For two reasons. The first is the cost involved. If we were to let the referendum process go ahead, and it resulted in a no vote, then this authority would incur costs of around nine hundred thousand pounds, only to arrive back at where we were in the first place, a council tax increase of two per cent. We believe that money can and should be spent on services that residents want and need now.

Make no mistake, the result in a council tax increase referendum would be no. The public know that, Eric Pickles knows that, the Greens know that. Almost a million pounds just to be the first, just to be the boldest, just to make a political statement to the Tory government. Almost a million pounds that doesn’t get spent on things this city needs.

The second reason is us. We are councillors, elected to do a job. We are elected to look at all the available information, take the best advice on offer, consider all the alternatives and reach a decision based on our own best judgement. We can’t just wash our hands of the responsibility to take decisions just because they are hard, just because the consequences are difficult. I say to the Green members opposite, face up to the responsibilities you were elected to discharge, to the difficult decisions you knew you would face when you were voted in. The people of this city expect that of you, of all of us.

Madam Mayor, if their proposed increase was a serious attempt to protect services rather than an example of political grandstanding then they would have spoken to us first, not the national media. If they were a responsible administration they would have looked at all spending, even that which is politically difficult for them, before worrying the most vulnerable of our residents about cuts to the services they rely on. If they were a credible political party on the way up rather than the way out then we would have a budget before us that looked to the long term, not just to the next elections.

But most of all, Madam Mayor, this Green proposal to increase council tax by five or six pounds a month is because they want to be able to say that others voted for cuts – the other parties or even the public – but that they did not, so that they can show a clean pair of hands going in to next year’s vote. A Green budget of cuts to social care that has worried hundreds of our most vulnerable residents needlessly. If that is true I say to the Greens, shame on you, shame on you.

So if we reject the Green increase, why not support the Tory freeze? A third of councils are rejecting the freeze this year, according to research by the Local Government Chronicle. Of those almost 40% are Conservative led. East Sussex, Surrey and Kent are amongst those rejecting a freeze and going for a threshold 2% rise, as we are proposing. David Cameron’s constituents in Witney will see their council tax rise by 2% after Tory-controlledOxfordshireCounty Council did the same.

Our Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex has handed us a 2% council tax precept increase, in order she says to “invest in services.” The Conservative-dominated East Sussex Fire Authority voted just two weeks ago to increase their part of our council tax by 2%, with our Conservative representatives voting in favour of a tax increase.

So why, Madam Mayor, when our Conservative controlled neighbours are rejecting the freeze, our Conservative Police Commissioner is rejecting the freeze, and our Conservative representatives on the Fire Authority are rejecting the freeze, do the Conservative Group here on this council insist we should do the opposite? All they can do it cite authorities who are freezing or cutting council tax like Adur – district councils not faced with the same cuts, or the rising costs of social care as we are. Let’s compare like with like.

How, with costs to the council increasing at the rate of inflation, and their government imposing tens of millions of pounds of cuts  do they justify ignoring what their colleagues are doing in dozens of other authorities up and down the country. Is it because we are in a pre-election year? It’s not like they put council tax up every year when in office here but froze tax when the election came along is it? For those of you not here in 2011, that exactly what they did do.

Madam Mayor, the walls of our other chamber are lined with the names of our predecessors, many of whom left a great mark on this city. Herbert Carden, Dorothy Stringer, Lewis Cohen, Howard Johnson. People for whom local government meant something – civic pride, social change, a means to provide a better life for local people. They took pride in their town, in the council and the work it did to promote the economy, improve the lives of residents, build local services and protect the environment. Better housing, better health, better services.

I am certain that our predecessors on those walls would have been horrified at the assault on councils being undertaken by this Conservative-led coalition. The aim of this govt is to diminish local government, to wear it down, to reduce it to a rump that simply commissions services to the cheapest bidder, a council that cuts services to cut tax. That was not the vision of our predecessors, and it should not be ours.

Despite acknowledging that local government is the most efficient part of the public sector, David Cameron and his ministers will have reduced council budgets by an average of 40% by the end of this Parliament, £20 billion worth of cuts. Greater reductions are imposed on London authorities – down 4.5% on average – and metropolitan districts, reduced by 4.2%.

Cities are seeing greater than average falls; 5.5% for Liverpool, 5.3% for Birmingham and 5% for Manchester, 6.9% for Chesterfield. All of them Labour run. 38 local authorities have either received a flat settlement, or even an increase in spending power. All of them Tory or Lib Dem run. And now we have a local Tory group that bangs on about debt, the mess Labour left us in, and financial responsibility, yet which is apparently happy to saddle the taxpayer with a thirty year, forty million pound debt to pay for a viewing tower. Financial responsibility my i360.

The Conservative aim is to deliver one thing. Not good local government, not a better Brighton and Hove, not improvements to this city and the lives of the people who live here. They are all about delivering one thing, a single line on an election leaflet – Conservatives voted to freeze your council tax.

My colleagues will set out how in our amendments we will protect funding to learning disabilities, respite care breaks, park cleaning beyond the city centre, community grants and Pride, amendments that show that Labour priorities are the people’s priorities.

Under a Labour government led by Ed Miliband this council can expect a fairer settlement based on need, not on political bias. Labour will redesign the relationship between central and local government to spread power out to our cities and regions. Labour authorities across the country are already delivering efficient and effective outcomes with their residents.

Under a Labour council this city can expect a council leadership which puts the focus on basic services, co-operative solutions, better procurement and real localism.

House building is currently at its lowest level since the 1920s. For every £100 we spend on housing, just £5 is invested on building and £95 goes on housing benefit. This isn’t a sensible way to spend public money. Investing in homes and jobs and schools, setting up services which improve prevention and reduce demand, placing power and budgets in the hands of local people who know where best to spend it, delivering the outcomes they need – those would be our priorities.

People in Brighton and Hove are tired of being told by the Greens what’s best, a co-operative council under Labour control will work with the people, not impose policies upon them, we will listen and we will lead.

Madam Mayor, in this Budget we in the Labour and Co-operative Group won’t wash our hands of responsibility, pass on the decisions to others and make voters pay for Tory cuts as the Greens are doing. We won’t go along with their gesture politics and grandstanding in the media when it costs residents money. We won’t go for short-term pre-election bribes while council services are cut to the bone and then “market tested” for privatisation, as the Tories want.

The Greens knew from the day they proposed it that either the opposition parties or the public would vote down their 4.87% rise, meaning they can go into the next elections blaming anyone but themselves for the cuts. The Greens know we will be left with the budget they planned all along, with the inevitable savings that come with a 2% increase, but by then they will have had their day in the media sun and can go out – as they will in next May’s elections – saying they resisted the cuts but all were against them.

Residents no longer trust the Greens to run the city, to deliver basic services like refuse and recycling efficiently, or to take the difficult decisions needed to balance the city’s budget in a way that reflects people’s priorities. That’s why Labour want a sensible, reasonable, inflation-level increase of 2% delivering properly-run local services that residents can rely on and afford.

We won’t make residents pay for Tory cuts like the Greens. We don’t support the Green gesture politics of holding a costly and futile referendum on a 4.75% increase, and we don’t support the Tory “freeze” con-trick that says you can pay less but get more, in the run up to local and national elections. I say to the residents of Brighton and Hove, look to Labour for what is fair, what is sensible and what is right, look to Labour for hope in the face of harsh national cuts and hated local incompetence, look to Labour to do better, and we, as Labour, will deliver a better Brighton and Hove for you.”

Author: Warren Morgan


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