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Being Labour, Cotterill on the Council, Leisure and culture

My response to the Council’s CSR statement

10.25.10 | 4 Comments

This is my response for the press to the West Lancashire Tories’ bland statement on having a quarter of its government funding taken away.  It’s not been put on the Council website yet (perhaps they’re embarrassed) so I’ve copied it in below my statement.

The Conservative administration’s dry, compliant statement on the removal of over a quarter of its central government funding masks a number of uncomfortable truths.

While the administration makes much of the fact that it has millions of pounds in reserves, the main reason for this is that it has failed to deliver services of the same quality as in surrounding local authorities, meaning that West Lancashire residents have been discriminated against. Either it has simply failed to fund services, or it has run down its staffing capacity to such an extent that services have declined, and opportunities to develop services has been passed up.

Thus, older people in West Lancashire have been denied the concessionary travel allowances from which people over the border in Merseyside and greater Manchester benefit, because the Tories have failed either to put money into the scheme or negotiate properly with rail operators about a suitable fee to help them fill up their empty trains. Likewise, while authorities all around have offered free swimming for children, the Tories in West Lancashire made a point of refusing government funding because they couldn’t bring themselves to do the right thing. Understaffing in the Council is the main reason why housing services are 4th worst in the country, according to Shelter, why the new Local Development Plan is so delayed, why the planning service is doing so poorly, and why the new Local Enterprise Partnership plans have had no involvement from anyone involved either in enterprise, or partnership, meaning that the chances of future investment are being compromised. This is what happens when a Council becomes resource-starved for ideological reasons.

What the Council should have been doing for the last few years is funding services properly, and ensuring it was in a position to make the most of all opportunities offered it. When faced with the prospect of these savage cuts, it should be arguing its case with government for maintenance of funding. It’s compliant lapdog behaviour is exactly the kind of approach which has emboldened Eric Pickles to take the most savage cuts of all for his department.

Yet alongside this litany of failure, there is one stand-out case of what the Council continues to fund. In a move which must now be seen as shockingly shortsighted, in 2004 the Council tied its taxpayers into a 15 year deal with Serco, under which a £1million per year inflation-linked subsidy is contractually guaranteed, whatever budget cuts are taking place elsewhere. This means that while the taxpayers of West Lancashire and the staff of the Council take the hits, as services are cut, the shareholders of Serco are protected. For them, courtesy of a Council wedded to both ideological posturing and incompetent contracting, there will be no savage cuts.

 

The Council’s responsee to the Comprehensive Spending Review announcements

The Council will look closely at the announcements in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20th October.   One key feature is that local authority funding as a whole will reduce by 28% over the next four years.  However the Review does not contain details of individual funding allocations to councils, and these will only be issued in the Local Government Finance Settlement, which is expected in early December.

In anticipation of funding cuts, West Lancashire Borough Council has already taken action to reduce spending.  In summer 2009 the Council agreed a £1.6 million package of efficiency measures and a reduction in its workforce by 10% (a total of 57.4 posts.) This was largely completed before the end of the 2009/10 financial year and enabled the Council to balance its budget, while minimising the effect on front-line services. 

When the Council set its budget for 2010/11, it froze Council Tax to help local residents through the recession. The action taken in 2009/10 to reduce costs enabled the Council to do this without cutting front-line services or taking money from reserves.

We are continually looking into providing more innovative and cost-effective ways of working, whilst trying to preserve service quality. We have a strong track record of delivering efficiency improvements and this includes delivering cashable revenue efficiencies of more than 3% in each of the last 2 years. In fact, over the last eight years we have raised council tax by the lowest level of any council in Lancashire. The Audit Commission has said that the Council is well-managed financially and has adequate reserves in place to deal with the challenges ahead.

The Council has already identified a further £500,000 of efficiency savings for the next financial year and we are now putting together financial plans for the next two to three years with the aim of protecting front line services as far as possible. However it is clear that the scale of the  grant cuts in future years will require both radical changes to be considered as well the impact on staff numbers and services . All local authorities face the same very difficult budget prospects and will be exploring how to deal with these issues.

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