Snog, marry, avoid (don’t bother puckering up, Ron)

There are fifty-one councillors in Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Three for each of the seventeen wards.

The Great And Glorious Leader Of The Council, Ron Woodley, is suggesting that the number of councillors could be reduced by a third, saving £250000 (according to reports).

Going from fifty-one to thirty-four will save money, although I disagree with the sums allegedly saved. Since we must keep portfolios, etc, the special responsibilities, and their allowances, will still exist. We only save on basic allowances – which I think saves us less than £147900 per annum.

The Borough had thirty-nine councillors before becoming a Unitary Authority; and the addition of a dozen members was argued for on the grounds of increased workload. I doubt that the merit of that particular argument has gone away.

We could, of course, save money by reducing allowances.

Going from three to two councillors for each ward does allow for the intriguing game of ‘guess who is for the chop?

This must be an easy guess for Thorpe ward – one imagines that the author of this bright idea would be the first to volunteer for the Carousel. Adios Ron.

This grand version of snog, marry, avoid for our electorate does allow for some gladiatorial selection meetings. Will Lamb lose out to Evans and Phillips? Will Byford emerge triumphant in Eastwood Park – seducing those liable to believe his battle-cry of “we are full up” – leaving either Moring or Walker to contemplate a longer retirement than planned. Will Folkard again be reduced to finding yet another safe ward for his polemic abilities. Turning three into two will see all sorts of egos bruised as colleagues fight it out in the battle to survive this cull.

I think we should be looking to make savings in the chamber, but I am not convinced that a reduced membership is at all advisable. One notes that Parliament itself, author of the cuts, is increasing its membership by way of the Prime Minister bestowing so many peerages upon his friends. A classic example of do as I say ….

The need to make savings does not make any of the work go away, and so to enact a cull can only lead to a reduced service for those who elect us. As the town’s population grows it strikes me as perverse that we seek to distance those elected to serve – for distance is an inevitable consequence.

We are supposed to treasure our democracy, not knock it around to suit one agenda or another.

Juggling

The cuts continue. These are biting hard, and goodness knows what lies ahead when we at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council begin looking in earnest at the budget for 2016-17.

There is a 6.2% reduction in the public health ring-fenced grant. This equates to £584,000. Cuts have consequences, and in public health those consequences will be on us, as people.

The rent reduction of 1% of the next four years, another not-so-bright idea from the Government, will have a major impact on our Housing Revenue Account – something like £9 million will be the total loss in reduced income.

The extension of Right To Buy to Housing Association tenants will also see a reduction in the number of homes available to the Council – thus having a long-term negative impact on housing lists. Whilst the Joint Administration is building new council homes, any gains here could easily be offset, if not exceeded, by the effect of this change.

The broken window theory

The broken window theory essentially states that even one broken window normalises anti-social behaviour, effectively encouraging a second broken window, and then a third, and etc. The logical conclusion to be drawn is that of zero tolerance. Fix the small things, all small things, and the rest follows.

As a local councillor I am often confronted by low-level vandalism, graffiti, littering and the such like. My role is to encourage the local authority and police to address these issues, and I have had some success. However, in an era that sees local services and public services constrained by shrinking budgets it is becoming increasing difficult to sort out the broken windows; as resources become scarcer prioritisation is necessary. I understand the pressures and I understand that violent crime, for instance, has to be tackled before less serious crimes. However, there are consequences. I suspect we will see untidier neighbourhoods, for instance.

Cuts have consequences. With less money you get less. Of course, some of the cuts can come through services being more efficient, but this can only account for a fraction of what has to be saved. In policing, for instance, when Essex Police has to a more than a £70 million cut to accommodate it inevitably means fewer front-line police. Smarter policing will follow, but fewer police is not something that I have been asked to deliver; quite the contrary.

Invariably people want to see bobbies on the beat, they want the low-level vandalism sorted, they want safe neighbourhoods and criminals caught. They want zero tolerance; they are going to have to accept the reverse.

Austerity has a price.

Black sacks: my recent press commentary

I was asked to make a short comment for the Southend Echo (printed in yesterday’s edition). Here is what I wrote:

One of the duties of a local authority is to ensure the streets are kept clean. I am concerned that the ending of the black sacks distribution is making our streets dirtier. Earlier this year, during the budget discussions, I warned that the removal of these sacks could prove a retrograde step, likely to cost more than any saving made.

At the time I made this comment: “The decision to save £47,000 by no longer providing black refuse sacks is one that could easily be a false economy. Litter and fly-tipping feature large in many councillors’ casework inboxes, and this cut has the potential to make this an even bigger feature. Whilst most households will grudgingly purchase their own supply of black sacks, there will be those who choose either to dump everything in the pink sacks, to use carrier bags and the like, or to just throw their general trash wherever they can get away with it. All these options will increase the workload for street cleaners and will add more woes for the neighbours.

Cutting black sacks saved less than one-tenth of one percent of council tax. I am now being told that some streets are being visited three times a week in order to pick up pink sacks that include general refuse (and therefore not picked up as part of the normal collection). There is a cost associated with this, a cost borne by all council tax payers. We can easily imagine that the remedial work of picking up badly filled pink sacks, etc., will cost more than the intended saving.

Of course I want recycling rates to go up – but how is it to be achieved if residents pink sacks end up being treated as general refuse? I think we should reverse this false economy, and stop annoying our residents. Clean streets must be a priority.

Seeking affirmation, finding condemnation

I am not sure that the whole issue of local government finance was debated at last week’s full council, although it certainly featured in debates, both directly and indirectly.

Cllr Tony Cox writes on this subject and is largely correct in his analysis. However I think he misses the point. Whilst it is true that revenue and capital budgets are distinct, and that money available to be spent in one place cannot be used for the other, waste is still waste, and unmerited vanity projects are still unmerited vanity projects.

I do not believe the complexities of local government finance are beyond the ken of most voters. There is a natural injustice in spending on a rowing club boathouse (for a mere seventy members, many of whom do not live within the borough and therefore have contributed not a penny to local coffers) when a library faces the axe; and this injustice is obvious to most. This ‘most’ does not include the Conservative councillors who seem incapable of understanding what the public largely feel about them, and Liberal Democrats seeking to appease its Leigh base.

Cllr Cox does trot out the ridiculous statement that “setting a budget for a council is really no different than setting a family household budget”. He employs a weak analogy about buying a more economical car, failing to convince in any way that the loan being sought to pay for a rowing club boathouse is comparable. Investing to save is a fine thing, but I would invest in something that brings benefit to more than a mere seventy.

You can make all the arguments you like about budgets, finances, and the different pots of money and what they can be used for. You can make arguments to justify investment. You can shift blame all you like for all the stuff you are shutting down. But if you cannot see that building a boathouse whilst simultaneously closing children’s centres will not go down well with residents then you will deserve the disapprobation the electorate is going to give you.

What is culture?

A definition is this: development or improvement of the mind by education or training.

Southend-on-Sea is bidding to become the UK City of Culture when the title is again up for grabs in 2017, and I hope the town succeeds. There is much to admire in my town of birth, a town that I still love despite Conservative attempts to trash it.

Another definition: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

What culture does Southend have? It has art galleries (Beecroft is falling down), sports facilities (the Shrimpers are stalling in their attempt to find a new home), the largest free air-show in Europe (now scrapped because of the cuts), a musical heritage (struggling, but still there), many educational establishments (record-breaking periods in special measures), it has fine Victorian and Edwardian architecture (slowly being replaced with new and ugly development), it has the world’s longest pier (now closing for part of the week in winter), it has a Bandstand (moved from its cherished and popular spot).

Development or improvement of the mind by education: Southend has boasted very high levels up book borrowing at its libraries. Now, because of Government cuts we will witness the shrinking of the library service in Southend. Hope now rest on the shoulders of those Big Society community groups that the local administration wants to run those libraries not to be run by full-time professional staff. Libraries run by willing amateurs, which itself gives rise to all sorts of questions (see Cllr Paul Collins thoughts and questions).

Libraries were key in my education, key in the education of my children, key to the education, and joy of learning, for many in the borough. Libraries fulfill a vital community role too. Libraries are an essential prop for the culture of the community that is the Borough of Southend-on-Sea.

Libraries are a socialist enterprise, and perhaps that is why they can be cast aside so easily by a ruling administration for whom fairness is anathema.

Nigel and Graham should take the credit

When reading comments from the Conservative Leader of the Council, Cllr Nigel Holdcroft, and from the Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Graham Longley, you could almost get the impression that the cuts being forced on Southend-on-Sea Borough Council have nothing to do with them.

I feel obliged to remind Southend’s residents that when they have no air show, black sacks, or pest control, are not informed about new developments near them, and see a whole range of services offering reduced cover, that this is the work of these two. Both campaigned for their parties in the last General Election (Cllr Longley was even a candidate) and what we are seeing is the result of their labours. They should be rejoicing in our misery.

I was more than happy to laud the efforts of Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s governments when Labour were in Government; Nigel and Graham should be extolling the virtues of the wrecking ball that is clobbering the Civic Centre and all that it does for our town. Trying to look abashed at the Coalition Government’s impositions on local authorities looks ridiculous.

(And while they congratulate themselves the rest of us count the days to the next set of elections where we can wreak our revenge.)

Cuts in Trade Union facilities time – both sides of the argument

I have received (as has every councillor) a letter from the Southend-on-Sea Local Government Branch of Unison about the proposed cut in trade union facilities. The letter runs to five pages, and so I will not produce it in full here. Instead I reproduce the Conclusion, which seems to neatly sum up their argument.

There are many challenges ahead and there is a clear need for a consultation mechanism at all levels to implement fairly any changes the council propose. It must be therefore also be clear that this financial cap on trade union facilities will exacerbate the problems we already have in meeting requests for Unison’s presence from the employers ranging from the representation of members in individual cases to collective grievances and restructures.

Many of you, I am sure, may not agree with the current attacks on public services and believe this Government is failing the public. The erosion of trade union facilities time will not help support local services but will simply mean that proposals for cuts go without challenge and the voice of staff is not effectively heard.

Both the employers’ and trade unions’ heads of the Eastern Regional Joint Council (the joint body where employers and trade unions meet) are clear that they do not support the loss of facilities time and that attacks like these do not benefit councils in any way.

Facility time for union officials helps to ensure timely availability of representation leading to early resolution of work issues and, ultimately, better outcomes for employers, the workforce and service users. Undermining this investment will not prove productive in the long term.

I have also received the council’s response. I do not reproduce this in full either, instead choosing the Current Position as this similarly strikes me as a neat précis of the council’s position.

 As part of the 2013/14 budget proposals, a further reduction of the time off for trade union duties is currently under consideration.

Following a benchmarking exercise with other authorities a reduction to £45k has been proposed. The benchmarking identified that other similar sized unitary authorities were allowing between 1.5 – 2.5 FTE and that a number of County Councils’ were allocating less than Southend. In most District councils the amounts are significantly less and tend to be agreed on an ad hoc basis with more support coming from Regional officers (employed and funded by the unions themselves)

Most Councils who responded also indicated that they are in the process of reviewing and reducing their allocations.

Reference was also made to the consultation by the Cabinet Office on trade union facility in the Civil Service. This calls for a reduction in overall facility time and for a balance to be struck between reasonable paid time off and business needs and ensuring best value for money. This consultation also includes a proposal that no employee spends less than 50% of their time delivering their substantive job.

The proposed reduction for Southend Council does not include any change to the following benefits which will continue as follows:

  • Accommodation ( Unison only)
  • Telephone ( Unison only)
  • Use of notice boards
  • Access to e-mail
  • Access to intranet
  • Access to space on the Council server

Passing the buck

In a representational democracy one elects representatives to take decisions on behalf of the voters. These representatives have access to all relevant information, and based on election pledges and manifestos decide on what is to be done. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is hard. They acquire expertise, and are elected to take responsibility, and are accountable through the ballot box.

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council now has a Have your say on the Council’s budget page on their website where they invite the general populace to help make the budget. I see this as buck-passing.

Making ten per cent cuts is going to be unpopular. Doing it under the guise ‘this is what the people want’ is to create a human shield. Make no mistake; this is a cynical ploy that will be used to deflect criticism. It is an old, and in my view disreputable, trick – disguise an unpopular set of measures as being the will of the people.

These cuts are the doing of the national Government, a Conservative and Liberal Democrat government. Their representatives on Southend-on-Sea Borough Council should be brave enough to make these decisions and to take any opprobrium (or praise) that may result.

Governing by referenda is not something I support. Whilst I agree with consultation I think those that I and others elect must take the tough decisions, and be accountable for them. If the electorate in Milton had bestowed their trust in me in May I would have been a party to these tough decisions. I would not shirk this responsibility.

Of course, the budget simulator has no category for cutting councillor allowances, reducing the pay of the chief executive, employing less consultants, or stop wasting money on ridiculous road schemes. As an exercise in democracy it is a chocolate teapot, blame avoidance incarnate.

And now the NHS is subject to cuts in Essex

David Cameron, and Nick Clegg, made many promises in the run up to last May’s General Election. It is fast becoming evident that their words were of the ‘say anything to get elected’ variety as promises and pledges are being torn up.

The latest kick in the teeth comes as it now transpires that promises about “NHYes” prove to be as reliable as pledges about tuition fees – a vital ward at Southend Hospital is about to be shut and some operations in Essex are no longer to be performed.

The creation of the National Health Service stands as the premier achievement of any Labour Government. It flowers under Labour, and struggles against underfunding and cuts whenever the Tories hold the reins of power.

Labour’s achievements in reducing waiting lists are likely to be reversed, and any hope of the Cancer Guarantee being implemented, or weekend access to GPs, is disappearing over the horizon. The next Labour Government will, once again, be faced with a repair job on the NHS.

The lie that there is no alternative to these savage cuts is starting to unravel as the Tories are starting to lose support in the polls, and the Lib Dems plumb new depths of unpopularity. The Tories, with the connivance of Clegg’s orange book cronies, are engineering a society where education once again becomes the domain of an elite and where healthcare is a lottery. Theirs is an ideological attack on public services.

The Big Society is a fiction, only a Good Society serves all of the people.

This is a cross-posting from http://southendwestlabour.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/and-now-the-nhs-is-subject-to-cuts-in-essex/