Moments later and nearly all of the councillors were present; seated around the 1930s constructed, oak panelled, semi-circular chamber. It was our responsibility to consider the Council’s £186million budget and to debate and vote on how we thought the Administration’s plans would affect the 179,900 local residents. At 7.00pm the main doors opened. The procession entered and the call was given to momentarily “All stand for the Mayor!”. We did. The meeting commenced.
It is customary for the Leader of the Council to present his Administration’s budget to the assembled elected representatives. This year, Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con) began with a game show style activity. It involved him calling out the name of a given London borough. He then instructed his fellow Conservative councillors to cheer or boo, depending on it being a Conservative, Lib Dem or Labour run council. They played along. This game took up the first 22 minutes of proceeding as he worked his way through many of the capital's 33 local authorities. It was the strangest budget meeting I’ve ever been to.
Maybe Cllr. Greenhalgh wanted to avoid debating the details of his budget? I can understand why, as they include £36million of cuts. You can view the full budget papers by clicking here. I’ve outlined below some of the highlights of the cuts to services that were voted through that night by the 33 strong Conservative majority.
- Total cuts to care services for elderly, sick and disabled residents £2,804,000.00
- Cut to environment, highways maintenance budget £1,633,000.00
- Confirmed a reconsidered cut to street cleaning and refuse collection budgets £980.000.00
- Cut to environmental public protection & safety budget £687,000.00
- New income from events in parks and public spaces £200,000.00
- Cuts to the planning department £562,000.00
- Total cuts to the play and youth service £500,000.00
- Cut to the Foster Care Service £180,000.00
- Cut to high maintenance care for elderly, sick and disabled residents £100,000.00
- Growth in parking suspension income £550,000.00
- Additional cuts to libraries services £200,000.00
- Cut to mental health day care facilities £100,000.00
- Cut children’s discretionary educational grants £90,000.00
H&F Conservatives also refused to back Labour's proposal to give the five wards with the highest crime new 24/7 police task squads, and they stuck to their decision to cut police funding in the ward with the highest crime. Instead, they voted a paltry £750k for community police in just two of the borough’s sixteen wards. I confirmed that Labour will significantly increase the investment in crime-fighting if elected to form the Administration in 2010 and that we would make reducing crime H&F Council's number one priority.
Apart from the cuts to services, one of the most controversial issues that evening concerned the Council’s fees. H&F council charges residents a range of fees for hundreds of its different services. These include charges for parking, planning applications, children’s play services, meals on wheels, etc. All fees were increased by a minimum of 5%, except those that were to rise by a greater amount. Those included meals on wheels charges which increased by a further 16% this year, bringing the total increases for this service in the last two years to a staggering 40%. Pay and display parking charges rises by 12.5%; children’s out-of-hours play services charges increase by 121% and H&F Council introduced a completely new £12.40 hourly fee for home care for local elderly, sick and disabled residents.
H&F Council also has an Asset Reduction Strategy. This largely involves selling off land and buildings currently occupied by schools, youth clubs, community centres and homeless hostels.
Wages have been cut for many front-line staff with some people losing 50% of their pensionable income. The number of low cost homes to buy or rent have been significantly reduced and the Council is planning to make money by introducing a range of new or increased fines.
Not all the budget was bad. For example, the Customer (changed to Residents) First modernisation programme, started by the last Labour Administration, is delivering many of the technology-led efficiencies that officials promised it would in the early part of this decade. But, there are many local residents that will be much, much worse off. Most of those will be the elderly, the disabled, children and residents concerned about crime and the deteriorating state of our local environment.
I'll keep you informed as to how all of the borough's people are affected by the decisions voted through on that February evening.