Lib Dem Councillor Bob Sullivan’s Budget Speech

Liberal Democrat Group Leader Councillor Bob Sullivan made the following speech setting out the Lib Dem alternative to the Labour Administration’s Budget.

2013 Budget – A missed opportunity

Mr Mayor, I’d like to start by thanking our officers and finance department for helping us to produce a budget that is legal and addresses the financial problems that the borough faces.

In the climate of austerity we welcome the freezing of council tax – an initial decision taken by the joint administration some years ago.

We also welcome the decision to accept the coalitions transitional grant which will keep the impact on benefit receivers to no more than 8.5% unlike other London labour councils who are passing on the full 15 to 20% cuts.

The financial future for local government and Waltham Forest looks bleak. We are not likely to get back to the free and irresponsible spending of the previous government.

Doubtless the Waltham Forest Labour Party will jump on their high horse and try to blame the coalition for every painful choice that they’ve made this year. But just a short glance at their budget reserves will show you that, despite the cuts Labour are storing up money for a pre-election spending spree.

This year this Labour council not only collected over a million pounds more than they expected from our council tax payers but they spent over two and a half million pounds less!

And what are they doing with this unexpected largess? Protecting social care? Investing more in jobs and apprenticeships? Or even cutting council tax? No! They’re investing £1 million pounds of money from local council tax payers into ‘events’.

In contrast we’ve identified savings and reserves that could help residents now, investing in jobs, education and our local infrastructure.

As Liberal Democrats we have not shied away from difficult decisions. Nationally we’ve entered coalition at a difficult time for the country and are delivering a tax cut for millions of people including halving income tax for people on the minimum wage.

Locally in 2009/10 we helped lay the groundwork for some of the difficult cuts to the council budget we knew were to come and agreed the freeze in council tax to help the hard pressed pockets of local residents.

But that makes it all the more difficult to see the Labour Party squandering the money they do have to spend.

For example, in January they spent £130,000 on fireworks.

  • Why did we need fireworks in January?  Last year it was said we had to close libraries because of the cuts – when we were spending £150,000 of taxpayers money on consultants to organise events.
  • £130,000 could fund Harrow green library for a year and yet thanks to this Labour council that money has literally gone up in smoke!
  • Maybe you should ask Residents around Harrow Green and South Chingford if they would like fireworks this year or their library back – maybe make it front page in Watham Forest News.

All is not lost – We have been fortunate that two years into this coalition government we can now see how it has helped Waltham Forest where we need it most:

  • The pupil premium is delivering 9 million pounds a year to help 9,900 pupils from low-income families in our borough.
  • Ministers have delivered tens of millions of pounds to help cope with our growing school population. The second highest capital allocation in the country.
  • Ministers have improved childcare for disadvantaged two year olds, helping an estimated 1000 struggling Waltham Forest families with funding for 15 hours free childcare a week.

This is in stark contrast to the failures at a local level of Labour’s Worknet programme and the Cathall Skills Academy, where millions of pounds that should have been spent on local jobs have been wasted or left unspent.

Savings

Moving on to our budget savings:

  • Firstly the Lib Dem Group have proposed savings by abolishing the tax payer subsidy to the trade unions. Surely it cannot be right in a time of austerity that our tax payers subsidise the Unions in this borough – given that the Unions can afford to give away millions, year after year to the Labour party
  • This would allow the Unions to hold the executive to account properly and avoid the perception that Labour councillors and union officials are in each others pockets.
  • Secondly we would cut further into our corporate communications budget because it is an extravagance to still be spending £1 million a year on this when other core services are being cut.
  • Thirdly we will look to reduce money spent on junior cabinet posts, which were introduced to help the work of the joint administration and are a luxury we no longer need, and should not afford.
  • Finally we would cut Waltham Forest News, which lost money in the last financial year despite being propped up by hundreds of thousands of pounds of council advertising. Most people know that it is really a propaganda sheet for the Labour Party and the Leader.

Reserves

The reserves, last year and this year, are too high, compared with the overall budget. On the advice of the Finance Director we haven’t specified individual reserves in the budget amendment itself, but we have looked at the full range of reserves available – up to £43 million – and have identified areas that could be used to invest in our borough.

For example on Equal Pay.  This process should have been completed years ago and maintaining a large balance here means either that the Labour Administration has failed, and needs to act on this now, or that it is storing up money for something else and trying to hide it.

As we know, most of the cuts have been front-loaded, a process the joint administration introduced.  So in order to realise the necessary savings the majority of restructuring and redundancies should have gone through the system already. We also know that most of the redundancies to date have been managed by using in year budgets and not reserves. So the restructuring reserve and the redundancy reserve are high and could be reduced by a small percentage, whilst still having a big impact on our investment in the Borough this year.

Given the cuts to the budget overall, we should also be able to cut our working balance accordingly. We said it last year and we are saying it again.  Reducing the working balance by one million pounds and investing it in borough infrastructure is a better use of funds, than to let it languish in a bank. So we have taken this 1 million pounds for investment in road improvements for the Borough.

We realise that an extra 2million is to be used for potholes and pavements and we welcome that, but we feel that resurfacing roads is also important.  Having seen the road resurfacing in parts of Leyton and Leytonstone we feel that we should put another million pounds into resurfacing 12 or more roads in the borough.

Overall our proposals would be prudent, using only 17% of our reserves this year for investment, leaving a significant financial buffer for the future. And at the same time investing in the things that matter most to our residents now, and for the longer term.  We should be building a legacy from the Olympics and investing in jobs, education and care for our most vulnerable residents. ….

Children’s Services

Last year we included an additional  £1 million for Children’s Services, to help support them at a difficult time.  This is close to the amount of the current overspend in the department this year, so in retrospect it now appears prudent.

As councillors we all know the problems that were identified by Ofsted in the council’s services for looked after children last year and that Waltham Forest was one of only 2 authorities in the country to receive the lowest rating possible for their Looked After Children’s Service.

We’re pleased that the council has given some leeway in the budget this year to help the service recover. The Service has had a difficult time, but the very good news is that the Improvement Notice issued to the Council has been lifted and our congratulations go to Alan and his team for the hard work that they did to get this notice lifted.  We look forward to getting an improved Ofsted report in the future.

However we are extremely concerned about poor performance in some of our primary schools.  We highlighted recently the Ofsted report, showing that we are the worst borough in London and one of the worst in the country, for parents wanting to send their children to a good or outstanding primary school.

Not only that but we also found that we are below the national average for our Key Stage 2 results, a decline since 2010, and again one of the worst Borough’s in London and in the country for this. It is another failure on the back of last years’ failures in Children’s Services.  Even this week we have heard that the government is to raise the test targets. So there is a lot of work to do.

Not all these issues can be fixed with more money – local leadership is important. Continually changing the cabinet member for education is not the answer.

Given the problem that has been identified, we need to do something to improve our childrens’ attainment so we’ve earmarked a large chunk of money – £3.1 million – to invest in free breakfasts for our Borough’s poorest children. This money would go direct to schools and would fund a breakfast for every single child on free school meals for the next year.

Some schools may be doing this from the pupil premium money so that the total cost may reduce.  Of course if we were in administration we’d already have been negotiating with local schools to use some of their pupil premium money to put up some match funding. With more and more children going to school without breakfast, this is an important area that will help childrens’ nutrition, concentration and therefore their attainment in school.

We would also provide funds for additional respite care services and extra fund for fostering and adoption.  Most of our fostering is out of  borough and last year Ofsted judged our adoption service as only Adequate.

Also investing money now, can save in the future on expensive outside agencies and out of borough placements.

As a Liberal Democrat I don’t believe we should accept these failures in our schools, and our childrens services.

We must send a clear signal that we are not going to put up with a poor service and will not be content with an adequate service. But we will strive to provide an outstanding service.  Something which, I am sure, we can all agree is what we should be aiming for.

Business, skills and jobs

The lack of economic development over many years has finally forced the borough to try to address this issue and thanks to pressure from us over the last year they are finally investing in apprenticeships.

But there is so much more that could be done. In fact I’d be interested to know if we have managed to meet the target of 40 apprenticeships this year?

New apprenticeships & graduate schemes – £1,000,000

It is one of the great scandals in our country that one in five young people between the ages of 16-24 is out of work, some 250,000 of those for over a year.

There have been some welcome but tentative signs that across the country this is starting to go down but it is happening all too slowly.

Here in Waltham Forest, we are still a ‘youth unemployment hotspot’, with around 1 out of every 8 young people on jobseekers allowance – twice the national average! – this isn’t good enough.

This isn’t just a problem now,  For over a decade the previous Labour Government and now this Labour council have failed to provide our residents with the skills and experience needed.  The Olympic organisers said as much. They wanted to hire more young people from Waltham Forest but they couldn’t because they didn’t have basic literacy, numeracy and trade skills.

And over the last year we’ve found out why: Because Labours jobs and skills programmes were failing to deliver.

The Coalition Government has already taken welcome steps to deal with this, through its £1 billion investment in the ‘Youth Contract’ and the apprenticeship programme, which at the last count  is nearing almost half a million apprenticeships across the country. As a result, the number of apprentices here in the borough has almost tripled since 2009 to over 1,500.

But we as a council could and should be doing more to help. With this in mind, we have set aside £1,000,000 for apprenticeships with local businesses to train our young people and to expand our graduate scheme in the council to train the social workers and council officers of tomorrow.

This money would not only give young men and women the chance to improve their skills base and start on a solid career path but it would also benefit the local economy and businesses.

Surveys by the National Audit Office suggest that while only 5% of companies in Britain employ apprentices, 86% of those that do, say it has improved their performance.

Jobs, skills and attainment schemes – £750,000

But what about the thousands of other resident who are still struggling to find work? What about those who have recently lost their job? What about the long-term unemployed or older people who have been let down for years by the council’s failed Worknet programme?

We propose increasing the council’s meagre £120,000 investment from its priorities fund in getting people back to work by putting an extra £750,000 of the Council’s reserves into helping these people find meaningful employment.

The Waltham Forest Labour Party has finally woken up to the need to invest in apprenticeships but they’re only just beginning the work needed to fix their failure on Worknet, O-regen and The Skills Academy. Why should we as a Council squirrel this money away when it could be put to good use  helping the people we represent, find work now?

With high unemployment levels in this Borough investing now has to be a priority.

Business support and mentoring – £750,000

We must also consider the businesses where people will find work. We all know how tough the current economic climate is for business, especially Small and Medium Enterprises, both here in Waltham Forest and across the country, with a lack of confidence, rising prices and squeezed profit margins.

These local enterprises are vital as they not only serve our local community but are more likely to hire people from the borough, spend their money locally and encourage social cohesion.

That is why in our budget we have again ear-marked money for business support and mentoring, a total of £750,000 to assist local business and ensure that they are shoring up their balance sheets, creating not cutting jobs, and generating wealth here in Waltham Forest.

And importantly we don’t need the government to step in, we can do it ourselves, working with social enterprises like Biz Fizz, Waltham Forest could be investing in programmes that deliver increased business start-up and survival, job creation and improved incomes for local entrepreneurs and their employees.

It’s good to see the council is taking the idea of creating jobs for local people through the Councils procurement more seriously, after they rejected our motion on it last year.

If we do it right, procuring from local businesses and promoting local jobs can help our local economy and save money. When we put our motion on procurement to full council back in April last year not even 15% of council contracts were going to local firms.

From recent pronouncements the council clearly now have a commitment to working towards giving more contracts to local people and expecting contractors to take on local people and I commend the Cabinet member for that. But as ever we will be watching to ensure that the Council deliver on its promise.

The other areas of our budget address some the other growing concerns of our residents, namely,

  • Debt counselling,
  • The chance to get our drains cleaned at least once a year,
  • A reduction in youth and sports fees to encourage participation in sports,
  • The setting up of clubs and activities for our youth,
  • The stopping of the £25 pound charge for reporting rats, a service that most residents feel should be free
  • The freezing of charges for mice.
  • And lastly the reinstatement of Harrow Green Library – Residents are baffled how this Labour administration can spend millions on freebees but can close down Harrow Green library to save £128,000 in one of the most deprived areas of the borough.

In conclusion Mr Mayor

Labour could’ve taken just a small fraction of their reserves and paid for extra apprenticeships for local young people, but instead their Worknet programme appears to have failed for it’s first two years.

They could be investing in business support and mentoring but instead blame the Government when the Labour Party here who are failing to act.

And they could be investing in our struggling Education Services but instead they’re hoarding £43 million of council tax payers money. Over taxing and under spending on our residents over the last year.

All this whilst the Coalition Government are delivering across the borough,

  • Funds for over 1700 new apprenticeships,
  • Delivering a tax cut for 95,600 people on the minimum wage and
  • delivering £9 million pounds through the Pupil Premium to help 9,900 pupils from low-income families.

When Liberal Democrats were in joint administration, this Borough went from being a failing authority to a four star authority. Two years with no Lib Dems to provide the ideas, drive and dedication and Labour have failed our primary school children, failed our unemployed and failed our residents.

It is clear that Waltham Forest Labour are out of touch.

Whilst our priorities for residents are clear in investing in jobs, infrastructure and education

Labour’s priorities are even clearer, storing up money in reserves and balances and using whats left for events and propaganda.

Mr Mayor, I ask the council to support our budget motion.

 

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