The Bickerstaffe Record

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The cuts of ideology

07.22.09 | Comment?

So, the press have had first bite at the press release about West Lancashire Conservatives savage, needless, ideologically-driven service  cuts and redundancies, so here’s the full press release/story I gave them. I don’t know what they’ll print. More coverage to follow when I’m not so tired I could sleep for a week in a wheelbarrow.

Press release

The Labour group respected the rights of staff at West Lancashire Borough Council to a fair discussion about their future.   The council papers were marked ‘private and confidential’ by the administration, and Labour therefore chose not to issue press statements about the proposals, until these confidential matters were discussed with staff and then in Full Council.

Labour is therefore very disappointed that the Conservative council tried to make political capital from the planned redundancies and service cuts by commenting on them in the press before they were made public.   This shows a fundamental disrespect for the staff, as well as a disregard for its own constitutional norms.

To rub salt into the wound, Labour’s motion at the council meeting, that the plans should be discussed in public session because the press coverage had made matters public anyway, was voted down by all Conservative members.

The redundancies and cuts that the Conservatives voted through on Wednesday night are utterly disgraceful, because they are simply not needed.

The council has some  £12m in what it itself calls ‘disposable reserves’, and a total of £28m in balances overall.  This is taxpayer money, paid for from council tax and from general taxation, and has been hoarded by the Conservatives rather than spent on vital services.

Yet this fact gains no mention at all in the report to council!  Imagine trying to run a small business without bothering to look at how much money there is in the bank!  That’s what the Conservatives have done, so desperate are they to make their ideologically-based cuts.  Instead of asking officers to make an assessment of how services might be maintained, they have simply plucked a figure out of the air, and told officers to cut 12.5% of the workforce. 

When Labour challenged them at the council meeting on the poverty of their analysis, pointing out that the whole paper before the council simply started from the wrong place, they had no reply.  All they were able to say was that their budget availability was likely to be reduced in the long term, which reflects current Conservative doctrine about the value of public services. 

This is the same point that the Chief Executive has been asked to bang on about week after week in the press, and in emails to staff, as part of the ‘softening up’ process.  But it is a point unsupported by any evidence.   Instead, the evidence that IS available – that there are plenty of reserves available to allow jobs and services to be maintained – has been wilfully ignored.  And the Conservatives had the cheek to accuse Labour of being ‘in denial’!

In the council debate one Labour councillor asked for clarity about the apparent contradiction between the claim that many councils in the area were having to make similar cuts, and the assertion that redundant staff might then seek new employment with these very same councils.   The response, from the supposedly neutral mayor chairing the meeting, was his advice to officers that this was ‘not a question which needs answering’.  Astonishing arrogance!

The cuts to services are savage and reckless. 

To cut back on advice services, for example, as the Conservatives are planning to do, is an astonishingly irresponsible thing to do at a time of recession, when these services are needed most.

To cut the Sports Development Service is not just stupid, given the Conservatives’ own claims that it has helped reduce crime. It is also incredibly short-sighted.  The 2012 Olympics will, for other areas, be a great opportunity to get thousands of young people involved in sport, but in West Lancashire such efforts will be severely hampered. 

As Mark Forster, the Chairman of the West Lancashire sports and Physical Activity Alliance, has set out in his own representations to the council: ‘This decision will also prevent West Lancashire accessing a number of funding streams pre and post 2012, designed to ensure a legacy is created from hosting the Olympic Games. A decision to not have a sports Development infrastructure will result in a significant loss of external funding that could have been secured to make a difference to the lives of West Lancashire residents.’

In other words, the council is prepared to sacrifice millions of pounds in future investment simply to serve its own short term interests.

And the list of savage cuts goes on, hitting all front line services, including housing ‘street scene’ and environmental health (including pest control, where there is an acceptance that complaints will increase). The Conservative rhetoric about ‘minimising the impact’ on services is just that – empty rhetoric.

Yet while slashing front line services and jobs, the administration’s ‘vanity projects’ continue apace.   Nowhere in the report is there a mention of the need to review whether we really need a new town hall, for example. 

Having voted through this succession of cuts and job losses, the Conservatives then presented the next agenda item, ‘management restructure’.

The paper for this agenda item was a different matter altogether. 

For while front line services are deemed in need of radical ‘downsizing’ over a very short period, a gentler approach is deemed necessary for management.  The report actually acknowledges the fact:  “The report proposes incremental as opposed to radical action…….council could seek to radically change its structure but this is not something that is considered in the report.‿

Wednesday night was a sad night for the people of West Lancashire, betrayed by a Conservative administration which lacks the capacity or will to take responsibility. 

Labour in West Lancashire will not let people down in this way, and will continue to fight rearguard actions to save services and jobs during the mandatory redundancy consultation process.  Experience suggests that sensible proposals will ignored, and the Administration has already set out its stall by refusing to bring the  proposals back to Full council following this consultation period, preferring to delegate the ‘dirty work’ to officers. 

Nevertheless, we will try our utmost to make the Conservatives see some sense, while at the same time starting to see what can be done in the longer term to rebuild the capacity of the council, following the Conservative current ‘scorched earth’ tactics.

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