Saturday, 5 March 2011

Sefton Budget Meeting

I attended Sefton's Budget meeting on Thursday expecting to hear arguments from both sides relating to the national political situation. I knew what was coming. Labour Councillors would shout that our party had sold itself down the river and had willingly and eagerly submitted to be the sword sharpeners for the killer Tory cuts. Our side would scream back with equal vehemence that Labour spent needlessly and recklessly and that is the reason why cuts have to be made.

I mistakenly thought (and hoped) that there would then be some sort of rational discussion regarding the actual budget. I thought that Labour would have their fun, and then be sensible.

Sadly not. They voted against the proposed £2.5 million cuts because they argue that it is not necessary, that local communities will suffer and jobs will be lost. They claimed that it is they alone who care about the interests of workers and residents of Sefton. If this was really the case they would not have been rubbing their hands in as much glee as they were doing last Thursday. One Councillor claimed that he couldn't wait for May 5th to come to see the Lib Dems fall at the electoral hurdle. Another shockingly claimed that the Liberal Democrats should be held responsible for any suicides of young adults. Added to this were the (now incredibly tiresome) coalition jokes relating to bed sharing, and another one gave us an attempt at a bizarre potted history of the banking crisis.

What any of this had to do with children's services, or the wasteful millions of pounds being spent on the Southport market that could have been stopped at the meeting, but which Labour clings to is anybody's guess. You can argue until the cows come home about the speed and scale of cuts and the fact that this debate has split economists, let alone politicians, highlights that there is certainly a lot of debate to be had. However, a local council budget meeting is certainly not the place.

Regardless of whether Councillors agree or disagree with Government decisions, a local budget has to be set. Because of the make-up of our Council, and the positions on the Cabinet that the party occupies means that they are at the heart of this decision making process. Of the £44 million that have to be made, they have voted against £39 million.

Their colleagues in Liverpool City Council have been able to work constructively with the Liberal Democrats to produce a budget, so it really begs the question of why the Sefton group think they have the right to be so intransigent.

They cling to national arguments and jokes because they are the only things they have to say. They have not engaged in the process of budget scrutiny because they have decided they don't want to. Yet things are not as black and white as they portray. They claimed that the Liberal Democrats were against creating jobs because we are opposed to the £3 million being spent on Southport Market. I really fail to see how shelling out on £26,000 on granite seats is going to boost local employment. Ploughing money into a scheme will not make it a success; and less money invested in a more sensible manner would be far more productive.

The fact is there is not the money available to deliver services in the way that we are all used to. Children's Centres and Youth Centres simply cannot be maintained in the form in which they currently exist. That's why Conservative and Liberal Democrat Councillors voted for less money to be taken out of their budgets for this year to keep the centres open. This will mean more time to look at how the services can be kept going in the future. Cuts do not have to mean the end; In fact this is an opportunity for local communities and charities to play more of a part in running institutions.

So, while the two other parties have had sleepless nights, have done all that they can to make tough decisions in a short space of time, Labour Councillors have taken the easy way out. They have kicked back on the sidelines, abnegated responsibility and been paid for this by the very same people that they are claiming to want to help and support. Frankly its a very poor idea of public service.

And just to clear up the Labour myth that the state of our nations finances is a nice cover dreamt up by a spin doctor to legitimise ideological cuts. Here is a quote from an article in The Observer no less, in May 2008:

"Brown's love affair with the city was at first a welcome break from the Spartist tendencies of old Labour, but there was far too little challenge to monstrously bloated bonus packages and the sort of inventive banking practices that led to the Northern Rock debacle. Public spending continued apace long after the International Monetary Fund began issuing pleas for restraint. Government borrowing as a proportion of national income is now higher than that of most other G7 countries, leaving only a thin cushion against the impending economic headwinds."

Sefton Labour Councillors must be very glad that they didn't win the election then. They would have been denied their set pieces and had to face reality.