We need positive solutions to the cuts, not just protests


This post was published as the Saturday Guest column in The Argus on 31st October.

I agree with Caroline Lucas (Saturday Guest, October 24th) that the agonisingly difficult cuts are ones we are being forced to make by the Conservative Government, who are passing the blame and anger they bring down to local council level. Why would any councillor make hugely unpopular cuts to valued local services if realistic alternatives were on offer?

It would be helpful if her Green Party colleagues on the city council shared her view that the blame for the cuts lies in Westminster, not with the council leadership. Instead they take any opportunity to attack the Labour-led council elected in May in every leaflet and every speech. They launched a “Save Hove library” campaign; wrongly claiming it was being shut rather than moved. They have blamed us for changes to support for children with special needs, ignoring the fact that the decision was made under Green leadership of the council, not Labour’s.

We have to find £7 million to balance the books this year, and cuts of £25 million a year in order to stop the council facing a funding gap of more than £100 million in 2019. Not cutting one area by 30% means we have to cut another area by more than 30%. 

We will do our best to keep the discount on council tax we give to those on the lowest incomes at 70% or more, but the government are cutting funding for that as well, so doing it will again mean deeper cuts elsewhere. Remember that almost all of the money we get in parking charges goes towards funding bus passes for older people, a service the Government now requires us to pay for.

I disagree with Caroline Lucas when she says we should “look again” at raising council tax, only possible through staging a costly referendum, to offset the cuts. We would need to increase council tax on everyone, not just the wealthiest, by over 25% next year to fill the gap in our funding. That would surely mean pushing many more residents into poverty, even those working full-time.

Setting an illegal budget would only hand control of the council to the Government, guaranteeing even deeper cuts and rapid privatisation of services. The voters of Brighton and Hove rejected the Green approach to running the city in May, and asked Labour to take over.

Here’s what I and my Labour colleagues will do. We will join with councillors from all parties in the Local Government Association calling on the Government for a fairer funding settlement for councils like ours. I will stand in the office of the Secretary of State for Local Government and make that case to his face. I will make the case for power and funding to be devolved to the Greater Brighton city region.

We will do everything we can to keep the council from going bankrupt and keep services going. The Playbus for example, hugely valued in wards like mine, but a service we can no longer afford to run. We are asking any business in the city that wants to help to step forward and sponsor this service to our youngest residents and their families. Indeed if there is any council service your organisation wants to help keep going, we’d love to hear from you.

We will accelerate the process of building new homes and major projects in the city, all of which will bring in new council tax, new business rates and new rental income for the council. We will look at every land and building asset we have, getting the most out of it or selling it to buy something that delivers a better return.

We will build thousands of new council houses and truly affordable homes protected from the right to buy, so that the cost of somewhere to live isn’t driving people into greater and greater debt. We will push for more jobs, better paid jobs, and good apprenticeships to lift people out of unemployment and in-work poverty.

We will cut the costs of management and councillors, share support services with other councils, and work ever more closely with the voluntary sector and our public sector colleagues to get better value for money. Where we can protect pay and conditions and ensure local, democratic control, we will work with the local private sector too, making the best use of their skills and your money in our city’s economy.

We will invest in new technology, community hubs and neighbourhood services that focus what we have in delivering for you, your street and your area. We will put services before buildings, and people before politics every time.

Protesting is easy, as the Greens have proven. Delivering essential services for you, your neighbourhoods and communities under the cuts we face will be incredibly hard. Choices will be painful, but I and my colleagues will do our very best for you, and we ask every resident, every business, every voluntary organisation and every part of this city to work with us in the task ahead.


The tough choices that lay ahead


It is not too strong a term to use; the city council’s finances are in crisis. The city council faces a £7 million pound overspend this year, largely due to increasing pressures on care services for children, vulnerable adults and older people which in part come from the pressures on the NHS. After “salami-slicing” millions from our budget as the grant from government is cut by around £25 million each year, the time for easy savings is over. We can’t put off tough choices any longer. By 2019, even if council tax increases by 2% a year, there will be a gap of well over a hundred million pounds between what we receive in revenue and what we need to pay for what we do. 1% in council tax raises £1 million for services.

The Government have said this week that the revenue grant, which historically has provided around a third of the council’s income, will be ended altogether. They have said that in 2020 the council will be able to keep all of the money paid in business rates not half as at present; but this will only offset the cuts to a certain extent and it will not help us now and in the coming few years. Further cuts are expected to be announced next month. All the while Government is handing responsibility for more and more services to councils, without the money to pay for them.

I am calling a special meeting of our main decision making committee in a few weeks to get a grip on the council’s finances and ensure we end the year with a balanced budget. We have begun a four year budget plan that will re-shape council services for the future and for a time when our funding will have been cut by well over 40% from where we were in 2011.

We are putting forward plans to make libraries community hubs, open seven days a week in buildings that are fit for purpose, affordable to run and at the heart of their neighbourhoods. The current home of Hove Library is costly and unsuitable for modern library services, so we are proposing to move it to Hove Museum where it will make better use of the space in a better location for Hove residents.

To safeguard the Royal Pavilion, the symbol of our city and the jewel in our crown, we will be putting together plans to move it into a new trust alongside the Dome and museums so that it is preserved for future generations. It will still be council-owned, and the trust board will have elected members representing residents on how the Pavilion and museums are run.

We can no longer afford to run the same number of town halls and offices we do now. I will be radical in my approach to buildings that are much-loved but costly to run. Kings House is being sold and Hove Town Hall being improved to become our main headquarters. We will look again at our other properties to ensure we can afford to run them and that we are making the best possible use for them. If not, bold and difficult decisions will be needed. Money saved from council buildings will be invested in local community hubs, new technology and better customer services.

Our local democracy is vital but has to live within its means. Leaders of each of the political parties have agreed to start the process of holding an independent review of councillor numbers and costs, one that has to begin soon in order to conclude in good time for the next elections. Residents will expect councillors councillors not to be spared in cuts that reduce the council’s budget by a third, and it is right that we have wide consultation on any proposals put forward.

The pressures on our funding mean that decisions on social care and children’s services, as well as dozens of other things the council does currently, will be reduced or in some cases closed. We will work with partners in the voluntary, co-operative, community, private and charity sectors to keep as many services going as we can, keep them local and accountable and fair. We will get our own house in order before we make the cuts to services we have to, and we will target our spending and investment on those who need it most and the basic services we all rely on. We pledged a council that works for you, and we will need your help to deliver it.

Council funding crisis and cuts are down to the Government

moneyThe city council faces a funding crisis, now and in the years ahead. Growing financial pressures on the NHS and low-income working families seeing the support they receive in tax credits cut, means that there has been a huge rise in demand for social care locally. The council has a duty to care for children at risk of harm, vulnerable adults and the growing population of older people. That pressure, and the failure of the previous Green administration to get a grip on council finances, means the council is forecast to spend over seven million pounds more by next April than budgeted for in March.

This is the context in which we are dealing with calls for money to support heritage projects like the Madeira Terraces and Saltdean Lido, as well as the need to keep improving our universal services like road repairs and recycling collection.

The news that councils will be able to keep all of their business rates may be welcome for those authorities who stand to gain, but it isn’t an answer to the financial crisis Brighton and Hove faces. As a city we don’t have many large employers, big industrial and manufacturing units, or out of town shopping centres that generate large scale business rates. We rely on thousands of small and medium sized enterprises in the retail, restaurant, digital and service sectors.

The changes are unlikely to come into effect until 2020, by which time the council will have had all of its Government revenue grant (which provides a third of our funding) cut entirely. In addition the Government is handing councils more and more responsibilities, like council tax rebates, pensioner bus passes and public health, and then cutting the funds to run them.

If we do not make far-reaching reductions and changes to services, to the buildings we run and the number of staff we employ, the combination of rising social care costs and cuts to funding will mean that by 2019 we look likely to be spending over £100 million more than we bring in from grants, charges, business rates and council tax. Keeping all of the city’s business rates will only replace half of that, meaning we still have to cut our costs by at least £50 million.

We will be taking firm action within a month to balance the books. We will look first at our own running costs before bringing forward reductions and changes to front-line services. We will focus on growing our business rates and council tax income from new businesses and new homes. If the business rate changes are meant to replace grant funding then we will challenge the Government to implement those changes earlier and in full, devolving funding and power to local councils and local communities. We will focus the money we have on delivering the services you rely on and caring for those who need it most. Your council needs fairer funding to do that and build a better city for all.

(Published in the Brighton and Hove Independent)