Last night Council Assembly set the budget and council tax for the forthcoming year. Despite the LibDems cries of "wolf" last year; claiming that the Government was making huge budget cuts to the borough; they were able to propose a budget which will freeze council tax for 2009/10.
Sadly the good news ends there, as the LibDems and Tories who run Southwark are pressing ahead with their cuts to adult social care services, a cut to the budget for the voluntary sector, swingeing price hikes and some crazy spending on apparently gold-plated bikes! Curiously, Cllr Adele Morris, who is in charge of grants to the voluntary sector argued that although she was cutting the grants budget, it wasn't really a cut. So if someone asks you when a cut is not a cut, tell them to go and speak to Cllr Morris!
There will be price hikes for many residents on estates, with the cost of parking permits for visitors being increased by 208% (you did read that correctly, it is 208%!) and the Executive is pressing ahead with spending £50,000 on bikes for community wardens. Good news you may think, until you hear that £50,000 only buys Southwark 50 bikes! Not good value surely?! And an utterly bizarre decision to spend over £500,000 from the revenue budget on the Canada Water Library, which will not even open during this financial year. Presumably the LibDems and Tories will come back next year asking for money to fit out their offices on Mars!
All this and 180 job losses for Council employees. As my colleague Cllr Aubyn Graham pointed out in debate last night, it would be surprising if a disproportionate number of those job losses were not from BME members of staff.
Labour proposed an alternative budget which would have reversed some of the most damaging cuts for vulnerable residents of the borough, together with a £5 million Economic Stimulus Package. Over the past 12 months the LibDems and Tories have salted away over £9 million of extra Government money into reserve funds. So we argued that we should use just £5 million of that to help residents and businesses in Southwark through the current economic difficulties. Sadly, this was rejected in a weirdly dogmatic way by the other parties. Their answer to the present recession is to do nothing. Doesn't it remind you of the worst of Mrs Thatcher's government in the arly 1980's?
Perhaps the most surprising vote was the decision by the LibDems and Tories to vote down our proposal for the Council to investigate entering the mortgage market in some form in order to help home-buyers through the recession. Until 1985 many councils and the GLC gave mortgages to residents, and there is an argument that we should be using our 'AAA' credit rating to help some of our residents now. Councils of every political colour are looking at the options to become mortgage lenders or partners with mortgage lenders. But Southwark's LibDems and Tories simply said it couldn't be done and voted against our proposal. Their completely incoherent argument against the proposal led me to the conclusion that it was arrogance rather than careful consideration which was driving their voting decisions last night.
The award for most curious speech of the night went to Cllr Caroline Pidgeon, who holds a number of offices and candidacies across the capital. In her most sombre and portentous tones she read a quote talking of the needs of Councils at this time of recession - concluding that they were not her words, but those of a Tory Councillor. As she was supposed to be making an anti-Labour point and as most listeners thought she was going to reveal that the quote came from either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, I am not sure that she had thought through the full impact of her remarks!
So while I welcome a Council Tax freeze, I don't welcome the decision of the LibDems and Tories to spend the money they do collect in such a wasteful way.