Budget Speech by Cllr. Bob Sullivan – Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Waltham Forest
Liberal Democrat alternative budget putting millions into jobs and businesses and Children’s Services and re-opening Harrow Green Library
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.
As I said last year, we did not support the front-loading of local government budget cuts and at that time fellow Lib Dems and I wrote to the Minister to oppose this because of its potential impact on services.
But thanks to the Legacy of debt left by the previous Labour government, we are where we are. Recent statements by Labour’s ‘two Eds’ make it clear that none of the three main parties are proposing to reverse any of the spending cuts to local government or elsewhere.
Despite this I don’t doubt that the Waltham Forest Labour Party will continue to blame the Coalition for every painful choice that has had to be made this year. But just a short glance at their budget, which I hope every cabinet member has now done since they managed to approve the wrong fees and charges before Christmas, will show you that despite the cuts Labour are storing up money and ignoring the needs of local residents.
In contrast we’ve identified savings and reserves that could help residents now, investing in jobs and growth and softening the cuts to our Children’s services.
We support the government’s offer of a 2 and a half percent grant to freeze our council tax, which has given the council flexibility this year including an additional reserve fund as we had already planned for a council tax freeze.
Two years into this coalition government and we can now see how Liberal Democrat influence has helped Waltham Forest where we need it most:
Despite the administartion being in denial, the facts are as follows:
The Lib Dems’ pupil premium has delivered 4.8 million pounds to help 10,000 pupils from low-income families in Waltham Forest.
Lib Dem Ministers have delivered 25 million pounds this year to help with Waltham Forests growing school population. The second highest allocation in the country.
Lib Dem 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.
Lib Dem Ministers have given new powers to councils allowing Waltham Forest to scrap its second homes discount, which could potentially save us 149,000 pounds a year.
Lib Dem Ministers introduced the winter support fund to give an extra 635,000 pounds to help with preventative adult social care over the winter months.
And Lib Dem minister Vince Cables initiative has created 1,500 apprenticeships for Waltham Forest.
Moving on to our budget savings –
Firstly, we’ve proposed savings in the tax payer subsidy to the trade unions. I see the Tories have woken up to this as well. Last year we proposed a 25% cut in line with cuts to the rest of the authority. Since Labour took no action on this we are now proposing a 50% cut to help protect vital frontline services.
We would expect this to be cut completely in future years as the unions should ultimately be using their own funds to support their members, not simply because it is fairer to our council tax payers but also because the unions themselves should be seen to be totally independent from the council.
This would allow them 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 as it is an extravagance to still be spending £1 million a year on this when other core services are being cut. Again we would expect to reduce this further in future years.
Thirdly, we would look to reduce the money spent on subscriptions and on junior cabinet posts, which again are a luxury given the current budget reductions.
We have looked into the reserves and concluded that they are too high compared with the overall budget and in particular in areas where action should already have been taken. For example on 2.3 million pound equal pay reserve. This process should have been completed some time ago and maintaining a large balance here means either that Labour has failed to address the issue 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, so in order to realise the necessary savings the majority of restructuring and redundancies have gone through the system already. So the restructuring reserve of 5.2 million and the redundancy reserve of 4.3 million are too high and should be reduced.
Then we come to the Insurance reserve, which last year was 900,000 pounds and is now mysteriously 2.1 million pounds. Is someone in the Council worried about a spate of council induced misdemeanors sweeping the Borough or are they storing money away for something else?
Given the cuts to the budget overall, we should also be able to cut our working balance accordingly. So we have taken 1 million pounds for investment in businesses and jobs for the Borough.
Overall our proposals would be prudent, using only 15% of our reserves this year for investment, leaving a significant financial buffer for the future but at the same time investing in the things that matter most to our residents now.
In a year when thousands of people will be coming to this Borough for the Olympics we should be making the most of our high profile and showing our best face to employers and business.
We are also prioritising services for our Borough’s most vulnerable residents:
In Children’s Services we would invest a million pounds. As councillors will know, in the latest Ofsted report, the council’s services for looked after children were one of only 2 authorities in the country to be described as poor. The lowest rating possible for any council service. But despite this, Labours planned cuts are still going ahead.
Our money would also provide funds for additional respite care services and programmes to deal with sexual health and teenage pregnancy, the latter being one of the highest in the country.
As a Liberal Democrat I don’t believe we should accept these failures in Children’s Services. As a corporate parent I don’t believe we should be content with working towards a service that is only adequate, and as a father and grandfather, I think that the Labour administration’s failure to provide for our looked after children is disgraceful and someone should be held accountable.
Our targeted investment would send a signal that we are not going to put up with a poor service and will not be content with aiming for an adequate service. It would show that we are ambitious for our young people, ambitious for our services and would set us on course to provide an outstanding service sooner rather than later.
We have also included money for both Adult and Children’s services to deal with the transitional arrangements when a looked after child reaches the age of 18 but is still dependent on council services. This was thoroughly investigated by a scrutiny panel last year. The report was highly acclaimed by officers and cabinet members – and then ignored.
We have found £600,000 to invest in Adult Services to give a boost to respite care, carers grants and mental health grants, which have been hard hit in recent years.
These should be important areas and red lines for those of us who are in politics to defend the most vulnerable. I’m surprised that the Labour party haven’t gone further in these areas and it’s again fallen to Liberal Democrats to stand up for those in the Borough with the weakest voice but the strongest need.
Labour have come up with a few good ideas like sprucing up Leyton High Road and the Big Six events but where is their ambition? Where are the ideas? Where is the investment in our Borough’s future?
It is one of the great scandals in our country that one in five young people between the ages of 16-24 is currently out of work, some 250,000 of those for over a year. As former Labour Minister, David Miliband, said recently this is not a problem that has come about overnight it has been increasing steadily for over 10 years. A recent report by ACEVO, a third-sector group, puts the potential cost to the taxpayer at tens of billions of pounds over the next decade if this isn’t tackled.
Here in Waltham Forest, we have been identified as a ‘youth unemployment hotspot’, with 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 in these stringent times, the previous Labour government and now this Labour council have failed to provide our residents with the skills and experience needed for more than a decade – the Olympic organisers have said as much. They wanted to hire more young people from Waltham Forest but they say they couldn’t because the young people did not have basic literacy, numeracy and trade skills.
The UK Government has already taken welcome steps to deal with this, through its huge investment in the Deputy Prime Minister’s ‘Youth Contract’ and the apprenticeship programme. As a result, the number of apprentices here in the borough has almost tripled since 2009 to over 1,500. The scandal is that our Council has managed to take on only 9 apprentices.
But we as a council could and should be doing more to help. With this in mind, we have set aside £2,000,000 for apprenticeships with local businesses to train our young people and prepare them for the world of work. This money would not only give up to 400 young men and women the chance to improve their skills base but it would also benefit the local economy and businesses.
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 are now finding their savings don’t cover everything and need extra income?
We propose increasing the councils meagre £120,000 investment for getting people back to work by putting an extra £1,000,000 of the Council’s working balance into helping these people find meaningful employment. Why should we as a Council keep this money back when it could be put to good use and spent assisting the people we represent?
There are already organisations out there doing this work but they need financial support and local leadership to deliver. With high unemployment levels in this Borough investing now has to be a priority.
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 margins pushing them into making redundancies and even facing bankruptcy. These 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 earmarked a total of £500,000 for business support and mentoring, 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.
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.
We already run a graduate scheme here at the council. But with graduates finding it harder and harder to get work, why not expand it? Yes we’re having to cut jobs elsewhere but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be investing in tomorrow’s talent. The Local Government Association run a scheme with some impressive statistics, which offers in-built support for both graduates and managers.
As I’ve said already, our Borough has a problem with youth unemployment and we should be using a multi-pronged approach to tackle it now. Just because times are hard it doesn’t mean we should be ducking these issues, in fact just the opposite, we should be tackling them head on and investing now whilst we can and building on the good work the government is already doing.
This administration could’ve taken just a small fraction of their reserves and paid for up to 400 extra apprenticeships for young people.
They could be investing in business support and mentoring.
And they could be protecting the most vulnerable by investing in our struggling Children’s Services. But they haven’t!
With Liberal Democrats in administration, this Borough went from being a failing authority to a four star authority and one of the most improved boroughs in the country. Two years on with no Liberal Democrats to provide the ideas, drive and dedication, Labour have got lazy and failed our looked after children, failed our local businesses by not paying them on time, despite promising to do so, failed in their diligence by approving the wrong fees and charges and failed our staff by paying 100 of them below the London Living Wage and tonight they have failed to deliver a budget that invests in our residents future.
Our budget is ambitious for our residents, ambitious for our businesses and ambitious for Waltham Forest,
And to that end Mr Mayor I ask the council to support our amendment.