Monday 29 March 2010

Council Budget Part Two - H&F's Labour Councillors

Whoever wins control of the Council on May 6th will be faced with a need to get the borough’s finances in order and deliver a genuinely more efficient platform of services. I believe it is the Council’s responsibility to always seek to cut waste rather than services.

Having seen the Conservatives latest budget and watched them manage the borough’s finances for almost four years now, it’s clear that new or increased stealth taxes along with cuts in front line services are central to their approach. Just shutting up shop on a service is without doubt an expedient means of saving cash but it’s hard to argue it’s good value when essential services are removed - as happened when they ended home care services for hundreds of elderly, sick and disabled residents and then, while admitting our vulnerable fellow residents would be put at risk, introduced a new £12.40 hourly stealth tax to the remaining recipients.

Cutting services before cutting waste often brings about unforeseen on-cost too. For example, cutting youth services affects employability, good citizenship and community cohesion so it was short termism at its worst for H&F Conservatives to cut the youth budget by over £500,000 and sell off youth centres.

This approach would be alien to some of our most successful companies. Senior managers in organisations like Unilever or Waitrose know full well that if they cut the quality of their products or services or hike up prices then there will be serious consequences to the competitiveness of their organisations.

Senior local government officers have no such pressures and, if politicians allow, will play “Yes Minister” style games to protect their perks and the size of their 'empires'. There needs to be a culture change that jettisons cutting or closing down services, introducing new stealth taxes or attacking the pay, terms and conditions of front line staff as the impulse response of senior officials faced with a need to cut cost. Take H&F Council’s Environment Department: it's ridiculous for it to have been allowed to increase parking revenues by £5million; introduce new recycling charges; add new bulky waste charges; seek out new fines for small retailers and cut the income, terms and conditions of some of our lowest paid staff, such as refuse collectors, instead of sorting out management structures and practices that went out with the Arc.

As an Opposition we do not have access to or been given full disclosure of the details behind the Tory run Council’s budget – as this meeting made clear. But we do have access to many independent experts. So before I set out some of the spending commitments Labour would make, here are some of the cuts we have already identified:
  • We will stop H&F Council wasting £35million on new Town Hall offices and instead take advantage of low-cost office space
  • We will cut the press office, stop advertising and dispose of H&F News – the Council’s propaganda sheet - saving £5million
  • We will cut the number of directors of the Council by at least one post in our first year and reduce it by two over our first term saving £390,000
  • We will put a stop to the exorbitant 16% salary rises awarded to senior Council officials and end the expectancy culture around bonuses and other local government perks
  • We will reduce the number of assistant directors by at least 10% and cut the numbers of senior managers by a significant percentage saving at least £2.1million
  • We will reduce the personnel department by two thirds
  • We will sell high value council owned office space and will not sell off community assets such as youth clubs, schools and housing. We will use those capital receipts to pay off debt and so reduce interest charge payments
  • We will use zero based budgeting as part of a review of all the Council's management and back office structures
  • We will instigate new incentives that measure and reward improved efficiency and better services rather than cutting services, bringing in new stealth taxes or cutting front-line staff’s pay, terms and conditions
We are still only just coming out of the worst global economic slowdown since the great depression. So, my fellow Labour councillors and I have been careful in the spending commitments we are prepared to make. Here are the main ones:
  • We will deliver extra 24/7 police task squads in the 5 wards with the highest crime within our first two years and ensure all 16 wards have this by the end of our first term.
  • We will abolish the Tories abhorrent £12.40 per hour home care charges that target our elderly, sick and disabled fellow residents.
  • We will support and maintain the council tax cut and look for new ways to cut council tax more for those on average and below average incomes.
  • We will cut the Tory stealth taxes - such as the £600 increase in meals on wheels charges.
  • We will bid for funding from government agencies across a range of ring-fenced budget areas such as providing modern youth services that encourage well being, good citizenship, and employability.
In the year I was Deputy Leader of the Council (2005/06), I centralised the 130 strong personnel department with a view to cutting it to around 15; centralised the press office with a view to cutting it to 5 and paid off £12million of debt – which is half of all debt paid off by the Conservative Administration during the last 4 years. The fact that much of the momentum on these efficiencies was lost when the Conservatives won the 2006 elections in indicative of the scope for change.

There is a better way to manage the borough’s finances and have our Council put all residents first in the process. I am determined that H&F Labour will offer a different and better path to that being travelled by H&F Conservatives. If we win the local elections on May 6th, that is precisely the journey our borough will take.

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