Make work pay

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Most of us are getting poorer

Every month except one since David Cameron became Prime Minister has seen living standards fall. That is 44 months out of 45 that each of us (except the millionaires) has being made poorer. This is a cost of living crisis, and Mr Cameron’s Government is not inclined to do much about it. Wages are down (by more than £130 per month), energy bills are up (by £300) – all of us are being squeezed. Even their own think-tank admits that we will be worse off in 2015 than we were in 2010.

The Conservatives, and their Liberal Democrats pals, like to repeat to death the mantra about the “mess they inherited from labour”, yet the truth is that under Labour we were better off. I should also point out that Cameron backed Labour’s spending plans at the time.

Whilst there has been increases in personal tax allowances, there has also twenty-four other tax rises. It really is giving with one hand whilst taking with the other.

The very rich should never have been given a tax break whilst everyone else is feeling the pinch and I am glad that Ed Miliband has committed an incoming Labour Government to reverse this unfair tax cut. I am also pleased that they will restore the 10p tax rate, as well as tackling energy bills and the energy market.

The only thing David Cameron is conserving is the lifestyles of his millionaire buddies.

My budget speech from last night’s full council meeting

I note that this is Cllr Holdcroft’s final budget. I have only seen two of them, but if the rest were as miserable as these two then I can understand the Leader’s desire to escape this place.

Again it is a story of cuts, job losses, and the diminution of public services. It comes to something when we almost celebrate a £7.3 million cut because of the significantly larger set of cuts that was promised at one point.

Some of the reductions come through efficiency savings, which rather begs the question as to why anyone would think it wise to have inefficient services in the past – although the answer may be that efficiency is a euphemism here.

Do I detect a pattern in the recent budgets? Large cuts last year, and no elections. Tough elections for the administration this year, and much smaller cuts. Expected large cuts again next year, set against the backdrop of a General Election…

It is not all bad. I am pleased that we are to see the borough’s street lights replaced by LED lighting. Obviously my informal prompting here has worked. This achieves two long term aims, a reduction in cost for the council and therefore the taxpayers in the borough as LED lights use less electricity (and perhaps we can have a look at those street signs that are permanently on while we are at it). It also helps to fulfil our obligations under the Nottingham Declaration. However, I believe there is still some way to go and whilst welcoming steps towards a greener borough I think we need to go further, sooner. A seaside community really is on the frontline in the climate change battle.

I am also delighted to see some real money going to highway improvements. I will be pushing for our pavements and road surfaces across the borough (and not just in wards represented by Labour councillors) to be overhauled to a decent standard. I do wonder how we have got to the point where, by the council’s own admission, we have a serious pothole every twenty-two and a half metres. We have saved money in the past by not fulfilling adequately our obligation to have the borough’s roads at a decent standard, and it is car owners and users who have had to foot the bill.

The borough’s pavements are also below the expectations of many residents I engage with, and again I will be encouraging the portfolio holder, whoever that is post May 22nd, to seriously tackle this issue. For too long parts of the borough have stretches of pavement that are impassable for some residents and I see this as a dereliction of our duty towards those who put us here.

Last year saw the borough’s toilets awarded national accolades. I confess to some surprise at this, those in and near my ward are often the subject of complaint. However, it is not just the cleanliness but the number of facilities that worry me. I was disappointed to see no allocation of funds for new, additional, toilets.

I will finish with a question which I hope the Leader will answer when he closes this debate. Amongst the cuts is the deletion of a Cabinet post. Could the Leader tell us who is to be culled?

Postcode library lottery

Two visits to Westcliff Library in successive days!  Last night was a community managed library meeting; a chance for those interested in helping run the library, or just concerned about its future, to come and listen and ask questions.

First, some numbers.

Visits Books issued
2011 68,126
2012 49,061 70,421
2013 100,299 68,712

Westcliff Library is open for forty-one hours a week. This means that it gets more than 47 visitors every hour, all year round.

Paul Collins has suggested forty-five attendees last night. It was certainly a lot more than the reported four at the Southchurch meeting.

What has emerged is that those blessed with an SS9 postcode will have two libraries with full-time staff; those with an SS0 postcode have none. Someone should remind Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors that they should be looking after the whole borough, not just the bits where their support lies.

There was representation from the three opposition parties in the audience. I guess the Conservatives do not need to attend these meetings – their libraries are saved.

Money, money, money

Whilst not for a moment diminishing the importance of money and its proper accounting for, I confess there are times when I find the subject a crashing bore. It seems in chasing down every penny, arguing over the merits of borrowing versus saving up, and distilling the rationale in respect of the different funds available, we lose sight of what we want to do with the money.

Rather like those whose contribution to a debate on an utterly compelling issue insist on dissecting the process rather than the subject at hand, it does look like the argument over accountancy practises is an exercise in clouding the real issues at hand.

In Southend-on-Sea we are seeing a scrap between the Conservative administration and the Independent Group over borrowing levels and how this is paid back. Aware that I am about to over-simplify the issue I think we can distil the argument as follows: the Independents claim that borrowing has been excessive, that we (the council tax payers) are paying back to much, and that there is deception at hand.

I am confident that borrowing has not always been prudent in the past in Southend-on-Sea. I also think that this, in part at least, may be the view gained with the perfect vision of hindsight – in other words, any borrowing is speculative, and it is possible that unpredicted economic wobbles could have adversely affected repayment regimes.

But, I confess to a large dose of ignorance on this subject. However, I can point to Cllr Nigel Holdcroft’s expostulation on this subject – and whether you accept what he has written will doubtless be coloured by your views of his administration. Needless to say, the Independent Group, led in this subject by Cllr Ron Woodley, take a different view.

However, I am concerned about where this debate is going, especially when considering who is likely to be running the Borough post May 22nd. An argument that borrowing is bad and that things should be saved up for leaves one wondering whether an Independent led administration will make any investments if given the chance.

I have lambasted the local administration for its waste, perhaps best exemplified by the Warrior Square kiosk. Regardless of where the money comes from, everything spent by the council ultimately comes from tax-payers pockets. It is beholden on councillors to ensure public funds are not frittered away on useless vanity projects. However, there are things that the council should be spending money on, and some of this money will have to be borrowed. For instance, a new primary school in the town centre is a long cherished Labour wish. I would be distressed to see this scuppered because a bean-counter insisted on the funds being pre-existing before a brick could be laid.

Council spending plans should live and die on the merits of their suitability, not kicked into the long grass because an obsession with fiscal process. I would insist on prudence, but would argue that investing in our future is prudent.

Budget first impressions

I got a brief first look at the budget proposals last night. The next few days I will be attempting to absorb the details, I may even have a few suggested amendments. So far, though, it is a story of more cuts and more job losses. The scale of the proposed cuts – a mere (sic) £7.3 million – is less than the numbers bandied around last year (anything up to £14 million was suggested) and this has got to be good news. The job losses, numbering somewhere between forty and fifty, are very disappointing.

In amongst the detail, which I confess to not being fully familiar with at the moment, are the library cuts and the closure of the residential care homes. Council rents will be going up, and this looks like it will be an above inflation rise. Council tax will be frozen, something made almost unavoidable because of central Government diktat. (A rise can be made, but in reality we would gain 0.5% at most.)

My portfolio (Public Protection, Waste and Transport) looks like it is getting an unexciting budget – but I will reserve final judgement for now. There is a new (albeit temporary) car park for the site of the old Queensway House and this is expected to provide £75,000 in revenue; I am slightly puzzled though as to where this will come from because if it takes its customers from other council car parks there will be no net gain. The Highways service is losing staff – I am awaiting clarification on what this actually means. I am pleased that my campaigning to de-clutter the town as regards to street signs is being rewarded (although this is being done to make a saving rather than improve the street scene, I will take it whatever is the driver). I am also pleased that the street lights are to be replaced with environmentally friendlier and cheaper to run LED replacements. This is something I have mentioned a few times in conversations – so I am not sure whether I can really claim credit for this.

The opposition alternative, if one is presented, will not be so much a budget but rather a collection of amendments. To stand any chance of being passed it will have to be agreed amongst the three opposition groups (Cllr Velmurugan is not included in these discussions – he will invariably support whatever the Tories come up with) and this will necessitate compromise. One thing is certain, the next few weeks will see much drilling down through the detail in these budget proposals, coming up with possible alternatives, and attempting to persuade other

National debt – some facts and figures

One of the charges made against Labour politicians (yes, even humble councillors) is our (supposed) mismanagement of the economy and the enormous debt we bequeathed Cameron and Clegg. This is used to justify all sorts of nasty policies, including cuts to local services.

There is a nice and simple graphic here which illustrates that the truth is not necessarily as it almost always appears to be told.

I have no idea what the politics are of the people who write for Gold made simple but they clearly are underwhelmed by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. They do not strike me as covert operators for the SWP, and one imagines that those make their money buying and selling gold are less than enthusiastic about socialism. This makes their prognostications on the current Government’s fiscal policies all the more interesting.  They predict, for instance, another recession soon, in contradistinction to George Osborne’s pronouncements.

The table below shoes the national debt situation since the Second World War. To be fair it is a mixed picture, but what it clearly does not show is Conservative Governments being better than Labour ones in reducing the debt.

Year Debt as % of GDP In power at year end
1945 215.64 Lab
1946 237.12 Lab
1947 237.94 Lab
1948 213.97 Lab
1949 197.77 Lab
1950 193.89 Lab
1951 175.34 Con
1952 161.99 Con
1953 152.16 Con
1954 146.66 Con
1955 138.19 Con
1956 129.03 Con
1957 122.18 Con
1958 118.14 Con
1959 112.44 Con
1960 106.76 Con
1961 103.06 Con
1962 99.87 Con
1963 98.15 Con
1964 90.97 Lab
1965 84.82 Lab
1966 82.07 Lab
1967 79.41 Lab
1968 78.33 Lab
1969 72.27 Lab
1970 63.99 Con
1971 57.99 Con
1972 55.46 Con
1973 49.48 Con
1974 47.87 Lab
1975 43.48 Lab
1976 44.81 Lab
1977 45.70 Lab
1978 46.76 Lab
1979 43.61 Con
1980 42.11 Con
1981 44.40 Con
1982 44.55 Con
1983 43.13 Con
1984 43.59 Con
1985 43.45 Con
1986 41.81 Con
1987 39.14 Con
1988 34.98 Con
1989 29.30 Con
1990 26.69 Con
1991 25.27 Con
1992 26.70 Con
1993 30.97 Con
1994 36.05 Con
1995 39.55 Con
1996 41.20 Con
1997 41.93 Lab
1998 40.14 Lab
1999 37.85 Lab
2000 35.38 Lab
2001 30.58 Lab
2002 29.34 Lab
2003 30.46 Lab
2004 31.84 Lab
2005 33.80 Lab
2006 34.85 Lab
2007 35.57 Lab
2008 36.61 Lab
2009 44.26 Lab
2010 52.08 Con/Lib Dem
2011 59.71 Con/Lib Dem

The figure at the end of September 2013 was 75.9%. Here is a good read on this subject.

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