Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Local Conservative competence vs Labour chaos

For years, the opinion polls have reported a significant Conservative lead over Labour when it comes to handling the economy. Unsurprisingly, the party that presided over the deepest recession in modern history, improper regulation of high risk investment banking and government spending massively outstripping revenue isn’t trusted with the economy.

Fortunately, we have a government which is sensible with public finance and, contrary to Labour’s mantra of misery, the UK economy is also the fastest growing in the developed world. The recovery is fragile given the state of other nations we trade with and the fact that Labour’s legacy, the bloated national deficit, still hangs over us.

The national Labour Party is struggling to come up with a policy which restores its reputation. But it has reluctantly accepted that austerity needs to continue.  That means cuts to public spending will go on no matter who’s in Downing Street next year.
Here in Barnet, the local Labour Party appear to have taken a 'deficit denial' stance, preferring instead the attractions of living in cloud cuckoo land where the council’s budget isn’t going to be reduced by £70million by 2020.  Somehow, in their naive minds, Barnet will escape austerity and it will all be OK as long as we stop spending on ‘consultants’, can ‘put up council tax’ and the old chestnut, ‘cut councillors allowances’.

Anyone with a maths GCSE can quickly work out that none of these measures will plug the very real £70million budget gap the council will have.  Most consultant spend is on the regeneration projects and is minuscule when compared with the overall cost of projects and social/economic benefits.  The increase in business rates, the council tax base and living standards of social tenants will be welcomed.

Historic spending on consultants on the outsourcing projects was also significantly outweighed by the savings made by the new contracts.  Again, Labour is in denial about those savings and all because they require a private company to help us make them.  Barnet Labour group’s 1970 mindset is: private = very bad, public sector = the only possible way a service can be delivered. 

The council uses consultants because we need the expertise and it will deliver long term savings.  Much of it is also from capital so diverting it will not permanently solve the cut to our revenue funding. 

Putting up council tax is also not an option, politically or practically.  A 1% increase equates to an extra £1.5million revenue and there is a requirement for a referendum if councils want an increase more than 2%.  Even a 5% increase would not go anywhere near to plugging the £70million gap.  Given that council tax was a ‘top three concern’ of residents a year ago, we all know what the results of a costly referendum would be.  Besides, the Conservatives retained control of the council pledging to freeze council tax for the next two years, so the referendum has, in effect, already been held.

Then we turn to councillors’ allowances from which we’ve already saved circa £90,000 via the new committee system.  If we completely scrapped allowances, which no other council is doing, it would not even scratch the surface of the £70million gap and would threaten the broad mix of councillors we have in the chamber today.

What about a combination of all these?  Well, if we put aside the fact they’re impractical and cutting consultant spend would put at risk some much needed transformation and regeneration schemes, we’d still have a huge budget gap that can only be addressed by changing council services.  On the subject of risk, its something council critics love to rant about but they also hate it when we spend the necessary money to address it.  They can’t have it both ways. 

There is no easy way to address such a large savings requirement.  If Labour does not know this deep down then they lack the necessary intelligence and ability to apply that intelligence to the real world.  If they do know it, it's telling they never come up with a credible alternative to what is proposed.  They oppose everything and propose nothing which is the luxury of opposition politics.  I can understand them playing politics but it's cruel to tell residents that the money is there to save certain services when it isn’t.  It’s irresponsible to suggest nothing needs to change or oppose a savings suggestion without putting another forward.
When you look at the proposals put forward by the council in a calm manner, they're sensible and have much less of an impact on services than what neighbouring Labour boroughs have done.  Brent shut half its library service despite receiving more funding per resident than Barnet.  Is Barnet proposing to shut half of its libraries?  No.  Could we?  Yes, but we don't  want to.  There would be a reduced level of service but that's all we can afford (Labour is still happy to spend money the taxpayer can't afford). There's one option where all libraries would remain open in some form or another which is generous when you consider less than 20% of people in Barnet borrow books from a council library.

Last night’s CELs committee was a classic example of Labour’s denial. If Labour don’t want to change the library service how else will they make savings?  Unsurprisingly, they didn’t address that matter.  On nursery schools, how will they fund an ongoing, unfair and unsustainable subsidy?  Silence.

I don’t expect residents to be fully aware of the council’s finances although the issue of fairness was obviously lost on one resident who shouted ‘where do Tory councillor’s send their children?’.  If I could have spoken to him I would have answered there is no subsidised nursery school where I live and this is the case for most in Barnet.  Perhaps then he would have realised he’s asking parents across the borough to pay for a service they themselves would not benefit from.  Would that have changed his mind or would his self-interested attitude prevailed?

I suspect many on the Labour side are relieved they’re not running the council as they would have had to move out of the very comfortable cloud cuckoo land and into reality. 

Reality isn’t easy and, in this age of hysteria, it involves being screamed at by all sorts and hearing about grossly dramatic and over the top 'consequences' of most proposals to save money. The genuinely affected and disappointed; the misinformed; the self interested; the politically motivated and those who find it therapeutic to scream at the council (they exist), they all want to shout councillors down.  Some will talk reasonably but all of these groups have one thing in common: they do not have to balance the council’s books.  Some just want to grab their bit of funding and run. 

Labour have chosen to run from the very real challenges of the council but thankfully we have a strong Conservative administration which will see through all the noise and, as its always done, do the right thing for the borough.