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.

No comments: