Thursday, February 24, 2011

Southwark Labour's Budget

On Tuesday Southwark Labour's budget was approved at a meeting of councillors. I was pleased that despite some initial protests and screaming from Lib Dem councillors we were able to hold the meeting in public, so that the residents of our borough could see the arguments made and the democratic process take place. Sadly meetings in Lambeth and Islington have been disrupted by protesters and been forced to take place in private.

It has been a tough budget process - finding £34 million of cuts forced on us by the Tory / Lib Dem government, but at the same time adhering to our budget principles and trying to deliver on the manifesto which we were elected on just 9 months ago.

Every department was asked to deliver savings of 25% over the next three years, but after listening to public representations during the budget consultation process we invested further sums in adult social care and children's services meaning that those departments have only been required to find savings of about 20%. I have said time and again, but it is worth repeating, that you cannot take £34 million out of our council's budget without having some impact on front-line services. And there are services which will be impacted by the decisions which we took on Tuesday night.

At the moment the Council supports 12 Day Centres and Lunch Clubs in the borough. Our initial proposals took £1 million out of this budget and envisaged 3 of the centres becoming hubs to replace the others. But the speed with which we proposed to make these changes alarmed some of the groups and users so it was sensible that we put back £500,000 into the budget to help these groups develop a different working model in the months ahead.

We took some other tough decisions which will see a reduction in spending in children's services, but on the advice of expert officers I feel reassured that alternatives to the services which we provided can be found and that no child who needs the protection of our council will be affected.

There were some innovative proposals in the budget - a £1 million Voluntary Sector Transition Fund to help voluntary groups continue through this difficult financial climate; a £1 million Youth Fund - particularly aimed at helping those young people aged 16 - 18 who have seen their future prospects blighted by this Coalition Government as tuition fees have risen, educational maintenance allowance has been removed and youth unemployment soared to 22% in Southwark; and a £200,000 Social Care Innovation Fund - helping groups who want to change but need funding to achieve that change.

And we were able to deliver on our manifesto pledges to halve the price of Meals on Wheels and further roll out our plan to give every primary school child in the borough a free healthy school meal. This policy has been criticised by our increasingly desperate political opponents as being a plan to feed "rich kids"! Perhaps they are confusing Southwark with somewhere else - but in this borough anything which tackles childhood obesity and helps that vast majority of families who are truly struggling to get by has to be a good thing. So I make no apologies for delivering on this pledge.

We will continue to deliver sports to young people - and I am hopeful that we will soon be able to announce what we will be doing with Southwark Community Games in the near future. Our twelve libraries will stay open - although they will have to deliver savings which I hope we can find when we undertake a review through until the Autumn. The streets of our borough should remain clean and we will deliver the £250 increase for all of our employees earning under £21,000 - a commitment which many local authorities have walked away from.

So, whilst we have found the savings Government required it has not been easy. The cuts are too far and too fast and demonstrate a complete lack of understanding by the Lib Dems and Tories in central government of the important role which local government undertakes.

We will continue to help those groups who want to engage with us as we deliver change across Southwark. But we will be doing so in a very different financial climate after Tuesday.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's the basis for your claims Simon?

The Lib Dems sometimes appear to have only a nodding acquaintance with facts. Never let a good story get in the way of the truth must be the motto in Lib Dem HQ! In Southwark, as well as putting out horrendous literature in the Brunswick Park by-election and peddling a malicious lie about a Labour Councillor's council tax status, they twist reality in weird ways. Labour plans for a new library in Camberwell are presented by the Lib Dems as plans to build a new benefit office on Camberwell Green. I don't understand who benefits from this kind of distortion. Perhaps it's just a case of desperate times requiring desperate measures?

But I was horrified to hear Simon Hughes on The Politics Show at the weekend claiming that we as a Labour Council in Southwark were deliberately making political choices in our budget which were "blatantly unfair" and that we were deliberately making more council employees redundant than was necessary in order to make a point against the government.

This is utter nonsense. We have made choices in our budget which are informed by our values and budget principles - believe it or not Simon some of us still have those. We anticipate that we will have to make 150 people redundant this year on the basis of this year's budget. Although any job loss is a job loss too many, I think that's not as bad as it might have been when you consider that we are losing the equivalent of one sixth of our budget - and compares very favourably with Lib Dem run Newcastle which is laying off 2000 of its' staff.

Like his Lib Dem colleagues on the Council, Mr Hughes has made no contact with me about our budget choices or made any suggestions of his own. Throwing about loose allegations and accusations for the sake of a soundbite is irresponsible and bad politics. So, what is the basis for your claims Simon?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Southwark Budget Consultation

In my post below I have mentioned the 13 Deputations which we received at Cabinet last week. Some may argue differently, but I think that the budget process we have undertaken this year has made a difference to the choices which we will make, and to the groups affected by those choices. I have just received a note from one of the groups who came to speak to us which seems to support this. Here is an extract from that note:

"I do not envy your position as a council; the timescale given to implement cuts of this magnitude defies belief and flies in the face of good practice. It is clear that you are trying to give us all as much opportunity as possible to share our concerns / put a case for our own work; this is appreciated."

I am not sure that I need to add any more.

Southwark Lib Dems Dilemma II

Last week 91 Lib Dem Council and Group Leaders wrote to The Times with a tough message about the Government cuts being forced on local government by their own national leaders. This extract from the letter echoes much of what I have been saying in Southwark for some time:

"These [government] cuts will have an undoubted impact on all frontline council services, including care services to the vulnerable.

Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making public-sector savings in a way that can protect local economies and the frontline, the cuts are so structured that they will do the opposite. The local government settlement will take a major hit in this coming financial year and further, smaller, cuts in subsequent years. This front-loading means councils do not have the lead-in time necessary to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base and ease staff cuts without forced, expensive redundancies. Inexplicably, local government is also being denied the opportunity to spread the cost of reorganisation and downsizing over several years — at no cost to central government — which just makes even bigger in-year cuts inevitable The Secretary of State’s role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us."

Now, remember, this is a letter from Lib Dems. I carefully scanned the signatories to the letter to see whether it was supported by Southwark's Lib Dems - who have said that they will speak out in support of our residents and protect them from the worst of the Government's proposals. But they had not signed the letter. So I wrote to the local Leader of the Lib Dems and asked her why not.

This is her reply:

"Dear Peter,

Thanks very much for your letter dated 10th February. I am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to discuss with you the cuts in our borough and the poor choices which you and your cabinet are making at the moment.

I did not sign the letter about Eric Pickles as this is not the approach which I wished to take. I prefer not to be confrontational, but to try to make progress in a consensual way. As you know, Liberal Democrats from Southwark have been happy to join you in discussions with Government Ministers about how to get the best deal for Southwark.

I also strongly believe that the poor decisions which are being made in Southwark at the moment are not simply the fault of the Government. We all know that cuts have to be made in public spending as a result of the huge deficit left by the Labour Government. I am sure I don't need to remind you that 'there was no money left' as Liam Byrne described the legacy left by your party in Government.

So while we accept that savings need to be made, the Liberal Democrat group in Southwark believes that your supposedly open and transparent budget process has been a complete farce. I have listened to a large number of local groups in recent weeks who have described conflicting information, a lack of response from cabinet members, uncertainty, sudden decisions with no discussion and complete chaos and last minute announcements with no proper notice.

You appear to be intent on making cuts in the front line services which our hard working voluntary sector provides. You are choosing to cut services for early years and older people with little thought to how much more this will cost the council in the long run. You don't have the honesty to let communities know which of our libraries you are closing. You are choosing to put £4 million into contingency funds this year while withdrawing the far smaller tens of thousands upon which local groups depend for their very survival.

I suggest, therefore, that you worry less about producing press releases about whether I am signing letters to The Times. You need to concentrate on the very real choices which the council must make and actually listen to the people of this borough who are desperately asking to be heard.

Best wishes,


Councillor Anood Al-Samerai
Liberal Democrat Councillor for Riverside Ward
Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group"

For the sake of completeness this is my response to Cllr Al-Samerai's reply:

"Dear Anood,

Thank you for your reply. I am not sure that it evidences your stated desire of working in a consensual rather than confrontational manner, but consistency is not an obvious LibDem trait at present.

Furthermore, whilst you are critical of Labour's budget choices in Southwark you do not state what choices Southwark LibDems would make in the face of these unprecedented budget cuts. If you were even remotely serious about working in a consensual fashion you and your Group would have been making alternative proposals during the consultation period, rather than simply criticising our proposals developed in consultation with our residents.

It seems clear to me that Southwark LibDems are even more isolated than ever - both from the politics of your national colleagues and from the reality of the budget cuts we are facing. It is amazing that so many other LibDem councillors around the country recognise the damage which your Government's cuts will cause to front-line services and are prepared to say so, but you and your colleagues believe that there will be no impact in Southwark - despite the fact that we face the largest cash budget cut of any London borough. Your silence is a betrayal of those you claim to represent.

You and your group have a choice to make - participate constructively in the budget process and make the case for Southwark at all levels, or continue to indulge in juvenile politics which serves no one - least of all the most vulnerable residents of our borough.

Yours sincerely,


Cllr Peter John,
Leader of Southwark Council,
Labour Councillor for South Camberwell."

There are some really serious issues here. How can we take Southwark's Lib Dems criticisms of us seriously when (a) they have put forward no alternative budget proposals themselves during the consultation process and (b) even their own colleagues around the country argue that front-line services will be hit by these cuts.

It may be that Southwark's Lib Dems come along to our budget meeting on the 22nd of February, try to amend the budget and argue that we don't need to make the savings which we are proposing. But that will be too late to be serious. All alternative proposals have to be considered and their impact thought through. So turning up at the budget meeting with a shopping list of changes will not give us that opportunity.

Like all other residents and groups in Southwark the Lib Dems have had the opportunity of making proposals and suggesting alternatives during our lengthy consultation process. Last week we received 13 different deputations at our Cabinet meeting - all of whose proposals and arguments we will consider again tomorrow. There were none from the Lib Dem group.

So you have to ask yourself, if Southwark's Lib Dems cannot even be bothered to put forward even one single proposal for an alternative approach to the budget in our budget consultation, whose interests are they representing, and who are they standing up for?