Roving / Street Surgeries

After a brief hiatus with the street surgeries, I’m back on the case and intend to get around the rest of the ward in the next couple of months. In April I’ll be visiting people in the following estates:

  •  7th April – Colinton
  • 21st April – Cornbrook

Budget speech

Budget speech from Full Council last week. If anyone is interested….

Chairman,

It’s an honour for me to present Labour’s response to the Conservative budget, but believe me, it would be a greater honour to present it for a Labour group, in control of the council. Something, that I hope, is only a couple of months away.

I must comment on the length of tonight’s agenda. If the leadership wanted us to seriously consider all these reports then they wouldn’t have crammed so much into one meeting.

A cynic might think that you don’t want a debate.

However, can I start by first paying tribute to my predecessor Cllr Rice who as portfolio holder and later as opposition spokesperson, prepared and presented the Labour budget over the previous seven years. It is only because of the hard decisions that Cllr Rice took when he was portfolio holder that the council enjoys its debt free status now.

I would also like to thank John Gardner and his team who do an incredible amount of work at this time of year to support the budget making process. John’s patience and good sense of humour makes this job much easier.

Breaking with tradition, perhaps, I would also like to give credit to Cllr Owens – not for his budget proposals tonight, but for agreeing with me, last year, that we need to understand the budget as a whole. It isn’t quite zero-based budgeting, and I think we’d agree that the process isn’t perfect, but it is a start.

Can I just say, though, that Cllr Owens is on record saying that this has been his hardest budget to date, yet this is his fifth. Perhaps if his previous budgets had been a bit better, then he wouldn’t find himself in this position now.

Cllr Owens’ budgets are predictable. With the headlines he giveth – and with the small print he taketh away.

Look at what he did last year:

He slashed the waste collection budget by £250,000 – a quarter of a million pounds – for so-called efficiency savings.

As a consequence complaints about waste have trebled.

He scrapped the GP referral scheme. A scheme that was helping thousands across the district lead healthier lives. After the budget, there was an outcry and officers had to cobble together the funds to keep it going.

You couldn’t make it up.

It’s a record of mis-management and incompetence. No wonder, this year has been Cllr Owens’ hardest year.

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Past problems highlight the need for change in the way that we go about the budget process.

Tonight’s meeting should represent the end of a debate about the budget priorities for the following year. However, it doesn’t.

Instead we wait for the white smoke to rise and for the proclamation of the budget. A budget that to all intents and purposes is the result of secret meetings, in smoke filled rooms.

Well we go smoke free next month! So maybe we can start doing things differently.

We believe the budget would benefit from a more open approach.

For example. This time last year, it was clear to us on this side, that the bulky waste collection service wasn’t working.

Waiting times had gone through the roof.

In our budget we proposed that £75,000 should be invested to improve the service, so of course it wasn’t. Complaints continued to soar and only the other week the committee on bulky waste collection finally agreed that £75,000 should be invested to improve matters.

I’m not saying “We told you so�?… even if we did, that’s not my point. We would get better budgets and better services if we had better scrutiny.

I am not calling for consensus – I honestly can’t see us reaching it here. However, I am calling for more openness and better debate across the council before we get to this point.

Also, with the introduction of three year settlements from the government, we will know well in advance what the budgetary constraints are. It makes sense for us to move to a more open way of working.

If I get the opportunity to present Labour’s first budget in control of the council, then I will make sure there has been an open debate for cabinet, back-benchers and opposition and will make sure that the process is embedded into the constitution.

However, I like to think that maybe we can find a way forward before Labour takes control of the Council (in May!)

I won’t move an amendment regarding the process tonight, because I think the correct way forward is for the leaders to discuss this and perhaps we can debate it at a future council meeting.

I repeat, the process as it stands in West Lancashire makes a mockery of the democratic process. Asking us to make this decision without the knowledge, without the detail and without the scrutiny is wrong.

In all honesty, therefore, I cannot put a budget before you tonight to vote on, because, if nothing else, I’d be a hypocrite.

Instead I’ll set out Labour’s position regarding the budget figures and what we’d aim to achieve if we were in control.

The figures in the report show that there is a budget gap of approximately £2.1m. These savings have to be found through limiting the growth items proposed and looking for other savings in the budget.

The financial and senior officers reduced this figure to £283,000 by identifying growth items that could be financed by existing one-off grants. Realistically the budget gap was reduced to a fraction of what’s in the report.

This gap can be closed by common-sense savings and a small increase in the council tax.

Indeed, it’s come to my attention that the district council have spent over £300,000 on consultants alone this financial year. Perhaps, if we were less spendthrift when it came to consultants, then there wouldn’t be a gap at all.

Chair, Cllr Owens should have had no difficulty in putting together the budget this year, because, as we will also see in the Housing Revenue Account, there is room for growth.

Not least, because the government has recently reviewed the LABGI grant that we get as a result of the increasing business activity in the district – kicked off when Labour controlled the council and supported by our generous Labour government.

Last year’s grant of £400,000 has doubled to nearly £800,000. It isn’t ringfenced and we would use it to fund our one-off expenses.

So, let me re-state our priorities for the District: They should come as no surprise, because they are well-known, and a matter of public record. But like all good things, they bear repeating.

The district desperately needs a cemetery or a garden of rest. For too many years the people have been campaigning for a final resting place for the citizens of West Lancashire.

Leaving it to the market isn’t working. The council must take action, and it will be a top priority for us when we take control.

Locally and nationally we face the problem of an increasing rat population. Experts in the 2006 national rodent survey identified council charging for domestic pest control as the primary reason for increasing rodent numbers.

The Tories’ rat tax is regressive and unfair and we remain committed to scrapping it.

We also support the OWLS in their campaign for a boating lake in Ormskirk. We believe that a task group should be formed immediately with the objective of bringing forward a new feasibility study, and on completion of that work, that the Council should pump-prime the project with a substantial investment.

We have consistently raised these issues, but as new events and opportunities arise, we believe the council should be taking a lead.

It should take a lead with:

  • green issues
  • with local public transport – buses, trains and alternatives
  • with improving the physical environment
  • and with increasing the amount of affordable housing in the district

We all want West Lancs to be cleaner, greener and safer. But sometimes, it feels like we’re obsessed with “safer�? to the exclusion of everything else.

Don’t get me wrong… We welcome additional PCSO’s in the district – particularly given that the Home Office is footing half the bill.

And given the extra government money that was announced yesterday, it would be fair to say that the whole scheme has been funded by our generous Labour Government.

We know that people want us to be more responsive and to take a lead on green issues. We would create a dedicated team of officers working to advise the public, local businesses and the council across the range of green and environmental issues.

Yes, there are already officers doing this work as part of their jobs – but it is piecemeal. There’s no focus.

Officers have confirmed that a dedicated team could be set up within the existing budgets, without the need for a growth item. Cllr Owens, consider this a gift from us – it makes us more strategic, greener and it wouldn’t cost a penny.

Members will recall that we receive a generous £900,000 from the government for transport schemes in the district.

We would take £100,000 from that transport subsidy and use it to improve accessibility for the use of train services in West Lancashire.

We would also create a fund of £100K for environmental bids. Jointly funded from the HRA and the GRA. It would be managed by someone like Cath Pulford and with the ability for Tenants and Residents groups, EMB’s and councillors to bid into for small environmental works in their patch.

We would also give each councillor a small budget of £500 each that they could use to support charitable organisations and groups working in their wards. Similar schemes work successfully in many other authorities and we should adopt it here.

Now, we can’t do everything in the first year. If we took control in May, we would still be tied to tonight’s budget.

Some things could only be done in subsequent years.

One such issue is the HRA to GRA subsidy.

We stand firmly by the principle that money, taken as rent, should not be used to subsidise services that should be paid for by the rates. We would start to transfer the money back in our first budget after we take control.

However, recognising that the current system is unsustainable, we would immediately increase the amount put aside from capital receipts to support service provision. Cllr Pendleton will explain the details in the HRA budget, but we urge the members opposite to do the same.

Finally, when we take control of the council in May, we will immediately start to address the chronic shortage of affordable housing in West Lancashire.

In our district there are 3000 people on the waiting list for a council house. We make the national press for housing a family in tents, because there were no suitable properties in the area. It is a massive, unacknowledged problem, and we would seek to address it.

We would redirect money currently earmarked for the new council offices, £1 million from the transitional pooled money, add it to the 2.3 million already put aside and bid into the housing corporation. Working in partnership with housing associations we would create a pot of 10 million pounds to build affordable homes across the district.

Politics is about choices. This Labour Group chooses to build new council houses. Not a new council chamber.

As set out earlier, we believe there is no great problem with the budget this year.

The difficult decisions about council tax that this group took when in control; and the generous investment from the government; have led to prosperous times for this council.

And lets not forget the massive investment in West Lancashire over the past six years. £30 million has been invested in the district since 2000 – that’s £5 million a year. The biggest beneficiaries – small business through the investment centre, and young children, through sure start and the childrens centres. Yes, it’s ring-fenced – as it should be. It’s the only way to stop Tory hands trying to force through projects against the community will, as we’ve seen with the SSCF money in Digmoor.

We on this side of the chamber are ambitious and optimistic for the future. Unlike the party opposite who see the budget as a glass half-empty, we see it half-full. We see the opportunity:

  • To support a more integrated transport system,
  • To help those in need of affordable homes,
  • To make West Lancashire a leading authority on environmental issues,
  • And to support voluntary groups, tenants, residents and councillors make real, visible, change where they live and work.

Unlike the party opposite, who see the budget as something to hide away – afraid of debate. We would open up the debate, we would encourage scrutiny and we urge the controlling group to do the same.

South Lathom Parish Council

The South Lathom Parish Council will be formed by the local elections this May. There was a brief debate last Wednesday about it – mainly around the fact that District elections will have to take place in Newburgh ward because some people move out of one ward into another. Having to hold an extra election is a waste of money, but the decision has been taken now.

The debate had the usual finger pointing which has defined setting up the parish over the past year or so, with the District Council claiming that all the delays have come from the Electoral Commission. I know from talking to people on the other side of the campaign, that a lot of the delays came from the Council itself, which at times looked like it didn’t want the parish to be created.

Anyway, it’s happening, and it can only be a good thing for the area. I think everyone involved should be congratulated, from the local residents who got a massive vote of endorsement with their petition, to Paul Cotterill, who helped them get started, and Gill Rowe, the council solicitor who’s team got everything through eventually.