Wednesday, 22 December 2010

No evidence of a Christmas present from Mr Pickles

My latest column in the Cornish Guardian addressed the spin surrounding the Coalition's cuts to local government. I hope you enjoy it - it is reproduced below:

For many weeks now, local people have been preparing for Christmas – looking ahead to family get-togethers, planning the celebrations and searching out those all-important presents.

But as a local councillor, and like many other people who work in or depend on the public sector, my thoughts have been dominated by the impending cuts.

On December 3rd, the Conservative/Independent administration that runs Cornwall Council voted through an emergency budget which included cuts totalling £170 million. In taking this action, they assumed that there would be a 30% cut in central government funding over the next four years.

This was only ten days before the government’s announcement of Cornwall’s funding package was due to be made public. Like many others, I hoped that the Secretary of State Eric Pickles would give everyone a big Christmas present by pulling back from draconian cuts.

And last Monday, when the announcement was made in the House of Commons, Mr Pickles responded to a question from Stephen Gilbert MP by stating: “I am delighted that the reductions in Cornwall will be 3.9% next year and 2.2% the following year.”

For a short period, I was pleased that the cuts were so much less than expected, but then the actual figures were released. These figures referred to a spurious concept called “spending power” and included estimates of locally-raised Council tax, Town and Parish Council monies as well as some NHS money. In terms of the cuts, it appeared to show a 9% cut to the main formula grant, though there was no detail about a range of other grants that the Council has historically dependent upon.

And adminst all this uncertainty, the political spinning went into overdrive.

Cornwall Council initially stated that it would take weeks for the Council to fully understand the complex statement, though it noted it was “in-line with expectations of around a 10% reduction in grant funding.” Days later, in a press release the Leader of the Council said it was a 16.5% reduction and almost exactly in line with expectations which, he said, justified the decision to push ahead with massive cuts!

By contrast, reporters in local newspapers interpreted the cuts as a 12% reduction in “core Whitehall funding.”

Cornish Liberal Democrats MPs also joined in the confusion, accusing the Conservatives on Cornwall Council of acting with “undue haste” because the Conservative/Liberal Democrat cuts are apparently less oppressive than expected.

Is it any wonder that people are confused.

There is a great lack of clarity about what is going on at the moment, though I and many others are having to work hard to make sense of it all.

In the meantime, wouldn’t it be great if Santa Claus could deliver some self-help books to Mr Pickles and his Coalition friends on the 25th December, covering such topics as finance, communication and straight-talking.

Election news

It has been a few days since my last blog and I would like to offer belated congratulations to Richard Hale and his team in the recent Truro City Council by-election. The seat was won by the Liberal Democrats with 266 votes, but MK polled 153 votes. This is our best-ever result in Moresk Ward and we out-polled the Labour Party who managed 103 votes.

Well done to the team on a good result.

MK is also standing in the Cornwall Council by-election for Camborne North. There are a total of six candidates with sitting town councillor Mike Champion flying the flag for MK.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The amendments

Further to my earlier blog about the “emergency budget,” I would like to add a few words about the amendment that I tabled at the meeting regarding staff and the wage bill.

The final amendment was not as far-reaching as my original (see earlier post) and comprised two parts, which I felt were fairly innocuous.

It noted the decision of the Cabinet to undertake a review of “employee pay, terms and conditions” and sought assurances from the ruling administration that the potential impact on lower paid employees would be actively considered during negotiations with the unions and, secondly, reductions in severance arrangements (redundancies) not be considered.

Some councillors spoke against the amendments saying that we should not tie the hands of the Council when negotiating with staff.

I countered with reference to the continuing fall in the number of people employed by the authroity, which contrasted with the increase in the number of staff earning over £50,000, up from 127 in 2007-2008 to 143 in 2010.

And in terms of the severance packages for staff, these were reduced only a year ago. I put the view that it would be wrong to change the arrangements once again, as it would lead to staff being treated differently.

The amendment was taken in two parts. The first part about safeguarding employees on lower wages was defeated by a single vote – 51 votes to 50. The second part was also lost, by a much larger margin.

I can honestly say that I was disappointed (understatement) that the councillors did not take the opportunity to put down a strong marker to show some solidarity with the Council staff below management level.

For the record, I also supported the unsuccessful amendments to add extra monies to Adult Social Care; to review the proposed service reductions in relation to One Stop Shops and Libraries; and to guarantee adequate funding to ensure the future of the leisure facilities at Camelford Leisure Centre, Bude Sea Pool, Jubilee Pool in Penzance and the Hayle Sea Pool.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Cornwall Council budget is passed

MK councillors today voted against Cornwall Council's emergency budget, which was passed by 60 votes to 39 by Conservative and Independent councillors. Printed below is the speech that I gave as Leader of the MK Group.

On behalf of the Mebyon Kernow group, I would like to start by making our position clear on the public sector cuts being imposed by the Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition.

We consider it fundamentally wrong that this Government expects the public sector and ordinary people to “carry the can” for the failures of the private sector, the failures of the banks, and the failure of central government to regulate the financial markets.

And we consider that these ideologically driven central government cuts are too deep and being pushed through much too quickly.

In particular, it is our view that the likely extent of cuts to local government is not just overly onerous, but pure vandalism, which will lead to an inevitable decline in local service provision and the loss of hundreds and hundreds of vital public sector jobs.

We do however welcome the proposal to lobby for fair funding for Cornwall and its public services, and I can assure one and all that MK councillors on this authority will give this campaign our full and very active support.

Cornwall is not a rich area. Our economic performance is still weak, our residents receive amongst the lowest wages in the UK and there is widespread deprivation in our local communities.

The role that the public sector plays in providing decent jobs, and vital local services, is therefore especially important and we must do all that we can to protect it.

But over the next four years, the aggregated total of the proposed cuts outlined in this emergency budget in front of us today, would take £490 million out of the local economy – a sum equivalent to the Convergence programme.

It is truly reckless for central government to force through such reductions in spend and economic activity in an area like Cornwall in the middle of a harsh economic downturn.

The Government has got it wrong and we need to send a strong message to Westminster that our local services must be properly funded and protected.

As a consequence, we certainly consider it unwise to press ahead - gung ho - with such immediate and deep cuts here at Cornwall Council.

To return to this Council’s emergency budget; as a group, we have found the whole budget process flawed in the extreme and especially frustrating.

We are often told by the Chief Executive and the Leader that this unitary authority is a strategic body and that councillors should not treat it as a glorified district council.

But the scrutiny process around this budget has been engineered so as to discourage, for example, detailed consideration of the fundamental assumptions which underpin the figures, the frontloading of the cuts, the nature of service redesigns or the alternative service delivery models being investigated (outsourcing for short). Instead, discussions involving back-bench councillors have principally been focussed on frontline service cuts, which are very important, but represent less than 6% of the proposed cuts.

To put this in context, there was more discussion at scrutiny about increasing the cost of park and ride charges in Truro by 20p than, by contrast, the fundamental restructuring of certain services.

As members, we have been informed that Full Council should set the overall strategic direction of the authority, the headline budget figures and the resource allocations between the various service areas, while leaving the Cabinet and senior officers to (and I quote) to “achieve the savings and decide upon the operational changes required to deliver them.”

The MK Group does not agree with this approach and we have no intention of supporting headline budget figures, where the full implications of the cuts are not spelt out or even known.

We consider there has been inadequate scrutiny of the individual service budgets and how the reductions, as set out in Appendix C, were arrived at.

In this context, we have heard much about management efficiencies, rationalisation and streamlining but, too often, we were presented with staggeringly little detail about how the so-called savings might be achieved.

On the other hand, the restructuring of certain services, such as economic development, is already nearing completion – pre-empting this budget process.In many areas, we have seen no evidence as to whether such cuts might be appropriate, whether they are deliverable or how council services might be affected or where resultant redundancies might fall.

We have sought a lot of further information, which on occasion has not been forthcoming, and consider much more detailed scrutiny of what is appropriate for the different services is needed as a matter of priority.

A second element, which has had little consideration, has been the Cabinet’s decision to look again at the terms and conditions of employees to reduce spending by a further £10 million.

This Council is only able to deliver quality services to local communities, because of the dedication of staff.

But we have already lost numerous posts due to the creation of the unitary council, while actions surrounding this emergency budget could lead to the loss of a further 2,000 jobs.

But at the same time, the number of senior officers earning over £50,000 has increased, as has their overall share of the Council’s wage bill.

This is why we tabled an amendment to “ensure that the interests of employees on lower and average incomes are protected as far as is practicable and a more equal structure of pay and benefits is promoted across the authority, and that further reductions in severance arrangements are not considered.”

You will note that this is not the wording in front of members. It was rewritten by officers as, apparently, trying to rebalance the wage bill in favour of the less-well-off is against equality legislation, because it would most adversely affect those already on extremely high salaries.

The emergency budget also proposes £10 million of cuts from front-line services for the next financial year. We believe that many of these cuts are flawed and, in the case of the leisure provision, do not give adequate time and support to local communities to take on their local facilities.

What is more, there is so much uncertainty at this time about the final settlement and whether Councils might be able to increase Council tax. This is a time for caution. Remember, a 1% increase in council tax for each of the next two years would generate £7 million.

We consider that we should defer consideration of many of these cuts until the main budget-setting in February.

We have been told time and time again that a failure to act quickly will cost the Council an extra £5.6 million, but we understand that the majority of these deemed savings, over £3 million in fact, are management efficiencies that are already being pushed through by the Cabinet.

And going early with increases in fees and charges would only raise £300,000. We need clarity from the Cabinet on their figures.

To summarise, we cannot support this budget.

We believe it is necessary to do more to look carefully at how we can limit the extent of cuts; and join other councils, unions, community groups and others, to put real pressure on central government for a fair funding deal for local government.