Thursday, 24 February 2011

Anger spreads as Government cuts bite deep

Last night, an organised protest by various trade unions and left-wing activists disrupted the proceedings at Lambeth's budget-setting meeting. The noise from the protesters meant that the meeting couldn't be held in public - preventing deputations from the community having their say and councillors from taking their decisions in front of local residents. Details are here:

Given that the meeting was sadly held being closed doors, I've decided to publish an edited version of what I would have said last night. The Liberal Democrats and Tories in government have cut Lambeth's budget by one third - which equates to £37 million this year. However, Labour took the decisions to reduce back office staff, so that only £1 million of that will be cut from frontline services.

When the history of this borough is written, those who chronicle it may draw comparisons between the events of today and those that faced the leadership of Lambeth in the 1980s.

In the face of the government of Mrs Thatcher, who at least had the honesty to say she didn’t believe in society, the party of Ted Knight entered into an exercise in political grandstanding, which saw Lambeth get surcharged and become the basket case of local government.

Faced with the same kind of onslaught from Mr Pickles, this Labour council has made a different choice. Despite having our budget slashed by a third, we will protect the services that matter most, defend the most vulnerable residents and cut out waste and inefficiency wherever we find it. That is what I mean by responsible leadership.

So instead of simply passing the cuts on, we have saved more than £24 million by reducing back office staff. Of course, these are not pain free – and it is right that we pay tribute to the staff in Lambeth who are going through a period of uncertainty and fear.

The Conservative led government has made much of the fact that – to borrow a phrase from Thatcher, that there is no alternative. But is that true? Is it economic sense, or misplaced ideology to want to pare down the deficit over 4 years rather than 8? Would you want to pay off your mortgage in 15 years or 30, if it meant you couldn’t afford to pay for the other necessities in your life?

And if these cuts aren’t ideological, why is it in London, that boroughs like Lambeth, Tower Hamlets and Hackney have the highest levels of cuts while boroughs like Harrow, Kensington & Chelsea and Richmond upon Thames have the lowest. This government has hit the most deprived and vulnerable communities hardest.

And what about the Lib Dems? Their leader in Lambeth, Cllr Lumsden has frankly, failed to meet his responsibilities. He had the chance to sign a letter condemning the cuts along with his fellow Lib Dem council leads and failed to do so.

Instead, he has been travelling round to other councils, giving a presentation saying “do not be a constructive opposition” and when speaking about cuts in local services says “it is not our problem”. He urges his colleagues to be opportunistic and set traps for councils. That’s the kind of leadership we’ve come to expect from his party.

Labour is prepared to support this government where it is right – in its attempt to make public services work better for communities or to help people to break the cycle of worklessness. But we cannot support the kind of proposals the Lib Dems are advocating tonight.

Labour has put together a balanced and structurally sound budget. Where possible we have used funds from the balance sheet to protect frontline services. By contrast, the Lib Dems have conducted a smash and grab raid on our reserves - funds which must be protected by law. Lambeth's Section 151 financial officer - a non party figure said this was financially risky.

The last time the Lib Dems were in power they left Lambeth in financial chaos - with no reserves, a 40 per cent tax hike and cuts to key services. This is what would happen if they had the chance to put in place this set of proposals which only add up to poor financial management.

We have acted to protect services. While the government has taken away 1 pound in every 3 from our budget, we will focus resources on the frontline, so we can increase the number of neighbourhood police, protect street cleaning services, build new leisure facilities across the borough and maintain key services like children’s social care. All while freezing council tax.

That is a responsible budget, that responds to our residents' needs and protects our most vulnerable communities.

(Photo courtesy of Cllr Mark Bennett)


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