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Posted by: John Brace | 10th March 2014

Budget Council speeches from the three party leaders on Wirral Council

Budget Council speeches from the three party leaders

                                                  

Cllr Phil Davies’ (Labour Leader) budget speech starts at 6:27. Cllr Jeff Green (Conservative Leader) speech on the budget begins at 20:00 and carries on into the next video.

Cllr Jeff Green’s (Conservative Leader) budget speech starts at 0:01. Cllr Phil Gilchrist’s (Lib Dem Leader) speech on the Lib Dem budget starts at 1:20.

Cllr Phil Davies said, “Thank you Mr. Mayor. Mr Mayor, we need tonight to set our budget for next year in perhaps the most difficult set of circumstances this Council has ever faced. Mr Mayor in his five years in power David Cameron will have cut funding to local government by 40%, by the end of 2016 this Council’s main revenue grant will have been cut by over 50% since 2010. This is a huge reduction and the government has hit the most disadvantaged areas the hardest, Mr Mayor this is a scandal.

The most deprived areas are shouldering the greatest reductions in government funding while some of the wealthiest areas will find themselves better off. Mr Mayor this financial year the Prime Minister’s own local authority of West Oxfordshire, one of the least deprived areas in the country actually received an increase in its spending power while some of our most deprived areas on Merseyside are dealing with the most significant reductions.

The consequences of this policy have been devastating. Local services decimated, massive job losses, councils predicting imminent bankruptcy, some actually saying that they may be unable to guarantee their ability to provide even statutory services and at a time when so many people are struggling with rapidly escalating energy bills, prices rising faster than wages and benefit cuts David Cameron is refusing to rule out cutting the top rate of tax yet again. This
affair is absolutely shameful.

If the last four years have taught us anything it’s surely that we need a government which governs for the many, not the few and in terms of local government we need a government that distributes funding in a fair way and a Secretary of State that treats hard working councils and councillors who do their best to serve their residents with respect not contempt.

Mr Mayor, when my party took over the administration of this Council in May 2012 we faced a hugely challenging set of circumstances. We inherited a set of bad budgets and bad debts culminating in a £17 million overspend inherited from the previous administration.

Government cuts of £109 million over three years cut off a third of our net revenue budget. Growing demand for many of our services as a result of demographic change, factors such as an aging population and an organisation with poor corporate governance, weak management and a silo mentality.

Mr Mayor, I’m proud that through the hard work of Members and officers supported by external experts on our Improvement Board Wirral is one of the fastest improving councils in the country and we’ve put the Council’s finances on a firm footing to such an extent that the latest financial monitoring statement from the Director of Resources reports that the Council has an underspend of £982,000.

Mr Mayor our approach to the budget setting has been to use our overarching goals attracting jobs and investment, protecting vulnerable people & communities and narrowing the gap in inequalities as our key priorities in shaping our budget. I am proud of the fact that we’ve listened to our residents in framing our budget proposals. The What Really Matters exercise we conducted last year, one of the largest consultations in the country genuinely influenced our decisions on budget options that we proposed to Council last December.

However I will not deny that we’ve had to make some difficult decisions £48 million of cuts this year, £27 and a half million next year. I’ve said many times that I did not come into politics to make cuts and if I was given a choice of course I would not wish to cut any services. However given that 85% of our incomes comes from central government we are in the invidious position of having to make these decisions in order to set a legal budget. But let me make one thing clear Mr Mayor in spite of what the opposition may say, responsibility for these cuts that we’ve had to make on this Council lies squarely at the door of this Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition government and the parties opposite should be ashamed of what they’ve done to Wirral and this country.

Mr Mayor if I can now turn to our budget proposals, I’m pleased there is consensus around at least a number of items in the Labour Budget. The £7.6 million of growth in measures to support older people, younger people with learning disabilities and adoptions and special guardians. £1 million to enhance early intervention, £2 million invested in upgrading Europa Pools, Guinea Gap and West Kirby. I’m pleased that we’ve been able to use £400,000 from the waste development fund to reinstate monthly cleansing of entries and I’m also pleased that we’ll be continuing our funding commitment to constituency committees over the next year.

I’m pleased that we’ll ensure the Williamson Art Gallery can operate while the action group which has been looking at new ways of delivering this valued facility and finalising its business plan and I’m also pleased at being able to provide reassurance that no funding will be withdrawn from school crossing patrols where agreement cannot be reached with schools.

With regard to our staff I’m pleased that we were able to maintain a generous voluntary severance scheme, I’m also pleased that under this Labour administration this Council became a living wage Council last year and I now want to go further and I want Wirral to become a living wage Borough.

Mr Mayor I think it’s a shame that yet again the Conservative Group in their amendment is attacking our staff by deleting the funding for full time trade union officials. I have said many times that trade unions play a vital role in achieving good industrial relations and working with trade unions in partnership is the sign of a progressive organisation.

Mr Mayor with regards to next year’s council tax I’m pleased to announce that we will freeze the council tax in 2014/15. Providing the government doesn’t change the rules we also aim to freeze the council tax in 2015/16. We’ve been able to do this because the government have been forced to change its policy in response to the lobbying that this Council and others that the freeze grant should be built into the base budget.

Well let me make it clear Mr Mayor the freeze grant of £1.3 million whilst welcome, pales into insignificance against the £120 million which this government has cut from Wirral Council’s budget and if the government is really serious about helping councils like Wirral they should reimburse the lion’s share of this £120 million.

Mr Mayor, the council freeze will I believe will help all residents of the Borough. We will not impose an extra burden on council tax payers, hopefully for the next two years. We will continue to provide a discount to the vast majority of pensioners and we are putting £300,000 into the budget to ensure the poorest in our communities don’t pay more following the government’s disgraceful cut to council tax benefit.

Mr Mayor, these measures are important, but in contrast to the Tory amendment which proposes a series of largely short-term one off spending commitments, this administration is also proposing a £1.5 million house building program funded by a mixture of in year underspends and borrowing to kick start housing in those areas of the Borough which have lost out after the housing market renewal program was so callously cut by a stroke of Eric Pickle’s pen, an absolute disgrace.

Mr Mayor, the leader of the opposition is wrong to claim that Magenta Living could fill this gap. Official projections indicate we need to build around about six hundred new houses each year for the next five years. Magenta’s program will only be sufficient to meet a small proportion of this need and much of their new build will be a need to replace units that they have demolished.

Our program will generate a hundred new homes with the potential for substantially more. It will benefit future generations of residents long after this budget has been passed. It will create a significant number of new jobs and apprenticeships for our young people, most importantly because we know there is a strong link between good housing and good health it will contribute to reducing the gap in life expectancy, a key problem which has blighted Wirral for far too long.

Mr Mayor, in conclusion given the background I outlined earlier, this has been perhaps the most difficult budget I’ve been involved in setting. I would remind Council we still have a huge financial challenge ahead of us. We need to achieve additional savings of £44 million over the next two years and the remodelling work which was discussed at the Members’ seminar last week at the Floral Pavilion is essential if we are to deliver these savings and continue to provide good quality services.

Mr Mayor I think it’s essential that we continue to lobby the government to rethink the grossly unfair way in which it distributes funding to councils. I have to say I find the Tory Group’s proposal to withdraw from membership of SIGOMA, an organisation which has spoken loudly in favour of local government to be deeply, deeply cynical.

Mr Mayor although we’ve had to make some difficult I’m proud we’ve put the Council’s finances on a sound footing and we are helping all households with the council tax freeze in 2014/15 and hopefully the year beyond. We are putting extra money into the budget to meet our demographic growth, we are giving additional help to pensioners, the long term unemployed and attracting new jobs and investments. We have listened to and acted on the views of our residents. Crucially our house building program will leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

Mr Mayor this is a budget to be proud of, it’s a budget of a progressive Council with a clear vision for the future and a commitment to social justice and I commend it to the Council.”

Cllr Jeff Green said, “I will of course be brief Mr Mayor.

Mr Mayor, firstly let me say how much I welcome and I’m sure this is shared by the entire Council the fact that the Coalition government’s economic policies are working and the UK economy is now growing faster than any other major European economy. Businesses have created 1.6 million new jobs and unemployment has come down sharply. I’m sure we will also welcome the fact this government has allowed hard working people by amongst other things cutting income tax for the typical taxpayer by £590, giving a saving of £360 on petrol and of course freezing council tax.

Mr Mayor, what a difference to the economic mess the government inherited when they came to power. Labour had maxed out the national credit card, doubled our national debt and taken us to the brink of bankruptcy. They left Britain with the biggest budget deficit in the developed world and in our own peacetime history borrowing £1 in every four we spent resulting in payments of £120 million every day just to cover interest.

So Mr Mayor even the local Labour party must now admit bearing down on public spending was and remains an absolute priority for any sensible government. Even if the Leader of the Council over eggs the pudding somewhat by claiming that by 2016 we will have seen our overall budget halved since austerity measures were introduced. I’m sorry Mr Mayor that’s not over egging as I suggested, it is in fact utter tosh.

Mr Mayor let me be clear whilst I regret that sending grant to the government last year I do welcome the fact that the administration have swallowed their pride and have last decided to freeze council tax even if they’ve been brought to this point kicking and screaming.

I am however Mr Mayor disgusted that the only people who’ll see an increase in the direct contribution they have to make to Wirral services are pensioners. Given that the Labour administration have retained their cuts to pensioner discount and removed it completely from some without any recognition of their means.

Mr Mayor this is completely unfair and I’m delighted that if our amendment is passed tonight we will right this wrong. We also note that by their own hands the Labour administration increased the cost of living for the average family by £295.51 since April 2013. Therefore we demonstrate how the cost of living burden can be reduced by reverting to the pre April 2012 car parking charges, reinstating a year round free after three parking initiative, halving the charge for residents for garden waste collection and freezing for one year at its current level Wirral Council tax fees and charges.

We’ve also been able to find resources to ensure that funding meant for the education of Wirral school children is not diverted to pay for the Council’s responsibility to provide school crossing patrols. Now let me just be clear because I did check on this particular point as I do on them all of course and that was made very clear that whatever the warm words of the Leader of the Council no move has been made to put that money back into the budget and that cut remains in place.

Mr Mayor it also allows the street lights back on, increase the level of dog fouling enforcement, invest £1 million for an immediate programme to repair pot holes and improve Wirral’s roads and pavements and maintain our commitment to early intervention and Children Centres in the sure knowledge that failure to support young families in the early years will cost Wirral Council and taxpayers in the long term.

So Mr Mayor, how are we going to find the resources to reduce the cost of living burden and reverse some of Labour’s more baffling cuts? Well we’ve looked to find savings where any hard working Wirral family who could scrutinise the Council’s budget would expect cutting back on the cost of ourselves, leaning the Council bureaucracy, cutting out duplication and being more ambitious to transform the entire Council.

How on earth can the current administration justify an alternative support to councillors budget, spending £130,000 on paying for trade union officials, a Council press, marketing and design department of twenty posts, spending £1.9 million on items that are duplicated elsewhere in the Borough when cutting children’s centres, school crossing patrols, switching off street lights and making pensioners on fixed incomes pay for the privilege?

I also believe that with immediate action to increase the focus, ambition, discipline, rigour, risk management and improving accountability for the transforming Wirral Council change project can deliver increased cash benefits this year. Although I believe the current approach being adopted by the Leader of the Council does carry the risk of breaking any political consensus around the structural changes required be all Council led.

The fundamental question whose money is the administration seeking to spend? As Conservatives we believe the money earned by hard working people should be spent by them on their ambitions and aspirations themselves alone and only taken from them in council revenue or other sorts of tax when it’s absolutely essential.

Mr Mayor, if this budget amendment is passed tonight it will restore the safety of Wirral’s children and families, result in a 0% Council Tax increase for all Wirral residents, retain the pensioner’s discount in full, directly reduce the cost of living for hard working Wirral families and prevent the Council raising stealth taxes via its fees and charges, improve recycling, start the process of repatriating loans given out at bargain basement levels of interest to other Councils and I believe when that resource comes back it should be used to pay down the current levels of debt and maintain the entire Council’s commitment to a sustainable budget. Mr Mayor I commend our amendment to the Council.”

Cllr Phil Gilchrist said, “Thank you Mr Mayor. Perhaps if I just deal with the last point that was raised because last July I made enquiries about this loans situation and I’ve made more enquiries since. What puzzles me is that Councillor Green has included the whole amount that’s out on loan in his commentary at the same time we actually have earned £482,000 on the loans that have come back and we expect to get £238,000 on the loans that are still outstanding so I am cautious about the claims about the loans.

We have the money, it’s a bit like Father Ted. We have money resting in our account and the Council chose to invest it. We didn’t get as much as we’ve had in the past but at least the investments have produced some income and therefore that is to our health. So I was disagreeing with the interpretation of that.

Now I will turn to other things. I’ll try to be consistent and helpful as ever if I may. In December my colleagues and I welcomed some things and disagreed with others.

We welcomed the fact that we row over the country parks and Council charges, we welcomed new appreciation and concern about gritting among other things, while we continue to highlight our worries about a reduction in street lighting and what we saw as the threat, the idea that schools should pay out of money that they want to spend on education for school crossing patrols which we’ve always seen as a Council service.

Now we’ve highlighted this in December that if a school was running a tight budget or had concerns, we did not wish the school to have to chose between say a teaching assistant or some extra hours for staff and a school crossing patrol. Education was education in our mind and school crossing patrols were a separate service funding by the council payers and not the schools budget. So we continue to raise concerns about that.

I don’t agree with the description about the bad debts and bad budgets. These were things we’ve all known about for about ten or twelve years. It’s just that again year after year when we’ve debated the budget and argued about £2 or £3 million, that underlying problem which was known to senior Members was somehow glossed over and when a total look was taken at it and a clear long look by people who were less close to it, they said this genuinely is a problem and we accepted that and we do agree with the criticisms about us being in a silo culture.

Comments have been made about our Council against others and it is not me that says there’s a problem but Sir Merrick Cockell, Chairman of the Local Government Association who says that the next two years will be the toughest yet for people who use and rely on the vital everyday local services that councils provide. So it’s accepted by Conservatives in local government nationally the problem in the same way that I accept there’s a problem here and I know that the Leader of the Council and I have many warm words to say about North Dorset.

In North Dorset they’ve decided to increase Council Tax by 1.99%. Their budget is a fraction of ours, their tax on their ratepayers is £111 in Band D. It’s not the same kind of Council and I have to say that the Lib Dem Leader of that district said that although it’s like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound, this small increase is our only chance of keeping central service going with further savage cuts to government funding the year ahead will not be pleasant. That’s the Lib Dem Leader of a Council that is run by the Tories.

The picture we present is actually more realistic than this strange portrayal that everything’s wonderful elsewhere. In fact in Surrey the Tory Leader’s talking about a black hole in their finances and he’s putting his council tax up by 1.99% because he believes he’s got a black hole in his finances and North Somerset I looked at, they’ve freezed theirs but they’re talking about the council facing a continued reduction in government funding at least until 2018 and the biggest challenges are yet to come. We too face the biggest challenges yet to come because it get’s more difficult and my colleagues and I understand that. In fact a phrase doing the rounds in our party at the moment is ‘it’s grim up north’ which you’ll probably have more to say in a few weeks.

I didn’t quite catch what the Leader said but there are key things we believe we can fund and replace. We believe that the lighting that should be the subject of an investment program. I go along the roads and I look at the lights that are off, I don’t whether the light’s off because it’s failed, a fuse has been pulled out, the bulb’s gone, Manweb haven’t been able to connect the service up or some other fault and out there the electorate are even more, if I’m confused then people out there are even more concerned and confused because there are lights off in various places and nobody knows really knows whether it’s an official light off that we’re saving money on or one that’s supposed to be on because as I understand it when Members have objected to lights being off an officer’s had to go out and find some other fuse to pull to turn another light off to keep within the savings. So it’s a hit and miss approach which we disagree with and we believe there should be investment.

Finally I do want to look ahead and I know I didn’t catch what Councillor Davies said but I do look around and I look at what Councillor McMahon is saying in Oldham, it’s a few weeks since he said that he was going to have a freeze. He says, ‘On too many occasions we claim to present our case effectively both within our parties and within the media allowing ourselves to be characterised as prophets of doom or advocates of the old ways.’ It’s contained in last week’s councillor magazine which I probably got in the post so I do look at the wider world but I also look at the world as it is, not as the world as I might like it to be at.

I look at the worries that the leaders express, I look at the world Cllr Green describes. Yes I see an improvement in the economy, I see better employment, I see all those things and I think we’ve got to get from now to 2015/16 as we try and get stability and try and improve.

Finally I’ve listened to the upset comments coming from Labour colleagues behind me but I do read this document Labour’s zero based review. There isn’t a promise of you know this hall of plenty, that there isn’t. Mr Balls is saying that there is a problem. He accepts the problem if he’s going to make change if he were there. If he was there, if he was in that situation he’s made it clear not much is going to change from their first year or so. So we need to get from now, building stability, make all those savings that are underway with neighbouring authorities those shared services.

We don’t accept that the Tory target of boosting the £9 to £11 million for shared services is achievable yet. We haven’t seen the way things are going to work in practice. We have reservations about the budget some of which we raised last year about the youth services and youth zone and something squeezed but we have concentrated tonight on the key things that we think things are going wrong that could be readily put right and we think the Council would be wise to accept those changes. Thank you Mr. Mayor.”

When it came to the voting (much later in the same meeting), only Labour’s budget received enough votes to be adopted as Wirral Council’s budget for 2014/15.

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