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:
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.
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:
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.
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?