Sunday, 17 July 2011

Reading Labour's Political Priorities

Labour councillors were keen to point out to those of us in attendance at Cabinet on Monday that they had different, superior, priorities from the previous Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition administration of the Council.

We were given a steer about Labour's priorities at the June Cabinet meeting but Monday evening's meeting was where the rubber hit the road, so to speak and smoke began to clear about what Labour priorities will really mean for residents.

And, as laudable and popular as many Labour priorities may seem - and some of them we are very happy to support - the reality is that for the residents of  Reading the effects of reorganising the Council's budget to reflect some of them are far from benign.

On Monday, the phrase that fo me defined the evening came from the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr Tony Page:
"We won, you lost!"
He repeated this at least three times in the evening.

So much for an and to Punch and Judy politics signalled by the Leader of the Council, Cllr Lovelock at the last meeting.

But why is Cllr Page's outburst important?

Because it tells you all you need to know about the thinking behind all Labour's decisions in power.

For Labour, regardless of the subject under discussion - whether it is community cohesion, free schools, social care -  everything is political.

For Readng Labour Party every decision boils down to satisfying particular interest groups or groups of voters.

Ensuring that these groups or individuals are not disadvantaged by any decisions lies behind every decision Labour councillors take.

And if you are not in Labour's list by virtue of your background, location or voting habits you will not benefit.

To give Labour credit this is a highly effective politicial strategy.

But what it is not  is a recipe for good, ethical government.

And it is in fact very bad news for taxpayers and everyone who relies on Council services.

Turning to Cabinet, what did we learn from Monday evening's exchanges about Labour's real political priorities?

1. Reducing child poverty is not a priority for a Labour administration

Read documents about Labour's priorities for the year and you will not see child poverty identified anywhere as an issue that needs to be addressed.

On Monday Labour councillors did not bat an eye lid when public money previously ear marked for tackling child poverty was 'reallocated' towards funding Reading Council for Racial Equality and a vague notion improving community cohesion.

Improving community cohesion and promoting equality is one thing but why do other areas of Council activity have to suffer in order to deliver it?

The fact is the number of children living in poverty rising to one quarter when Reading had a Labour government and a Labour Council.

Last December, one of Reading Borough Council's longest-serving Labour councillors Cllr Mike Orton, who represents one of the most deprived wards in Reading said he was horrified at the levels of child poverty in our area.

And yet, he along with his Labour Cabinet colleagues agreed to this dreadful cut.

I questioned this decision and was roundly attacked by Labour councillors in the meeting.

This latest decision however follows a clear pattern of spending by Labour.

They have a long history of spending large amounts of public money on projects and areas where spending is not tied to any particular outcomes or objectives.

Lack of transparency over decision-making in the Council before has made this hard to question but recent development led by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors have made Labour's ability to avoid public scrutiny much more difficult.

Furthermore, Labour may have got away with throwing good money after bad in in the past but at a time when all public spending is being reduced their approach looks reckless.

Nationally, the Coalition Government has signalled that cutting child poverty is a priority with the publication of a Child Poverty Strategy, increased early intervention and improvements to years education, and the launch of the Pupil Premimum which will see spending on the poorest children in Reading rise significantly.

2. Labour councillors are in favour redistribution of wealth: from those on low or middle incomes to those on high incomes:

Labour's Cabinet approved plans for Council Taxpayers to foot 70% of the bill for people with savings over the minimum threshold to attend day centres. I am aware of at least one case of someone with in excess of £100,000 savings who will benefit from this - part of Labour's pre-election bribes.

This generous move (who wouldn't want to introduce it?) will set the Council back £123k adding more pressure to the Social Care budget which is already facing in-year demand pressures of just under £400k through demand pressures alone.

Labour councillors also agreed to scrap Green Waste charges and revert to a situation where thousands of people with no gardens will subsidise residents who do. This move will add £180k to this year's budget.

Labour councillors rejected a proposal put forward by officers whereby people on low incomes should get concessions on the charge preferring to introduce a scheme whereby some of Reading's wealthiest residents will be subsidised to get free collections by some of the town's poorest Council Tax payers on low and fixed incomes.

3. Arts , Parks and Planning are not priorities for the Labour administration:

On Monday we learned that Labour's free green waste election pledge will be funded by:
  • 70k from Cultural Head of Service staffing budget
  • £40k from restructure of Cultural Services
  • £30k from Parks and ground maintenance efficiencies and seasonal maintenance
  • £30k from Planning Delivery Grant
  • £10k from Joint Strategic Planning Unit
These cuts were tabled at short notice at Cabinet making detailed pre-scrutiny by opposition councillors impossible.

To suggest these cuts will not affect front-line services is laughable given we know they involve job losses and reductions in services.

4. Labour have no plans to bring back their 'gold standard' concessionary fares scheme.

Labour councillors pledged to reinstate concessionary fares only for people with Access Passes (5,000 residents) - funded through a one off £65k windfall to the Council's coffers via Bus Lane fines, something we are happy to support and something we would have done had the money been available.

Labour made clear they have no plans to reinstate concessionary fares for the 30,000 or so pensioners.

This would cost the Council £300k.

5. Labour's idea of consultation: agree consultation behind closed doors first

The Lead Councillor described as 'politically neutral' a letter that was circulated by a Labour councillor to residents before Cabinet had even met to agree a public consultation should take place on the issue.

Is this what Labour councillors mean by 'a fair, open and transparent process' to consultation as set out in their Priorities for the year at June Cabinet meeting?

6. Labour councillors have no idea how much their pre-election pledges on changes to Residents Parking will cost.

When we took control of the Council last May, Labour's Residents Parking Scheme was running a deficit of £300k.

Labour are reviewing the new scheme but made no promises about delivering any changes.

A report will be brought forward to September Cabinet about the financial impact of Labour's planned changes to the scheme.

7. Labour's approach to promoting community cohesion and equality under the microscope

Despite an independent review of their own community cohesion policies  in 2007 which identified a number of flaws in the Council's approach to promoting equality (including LGBT equality) Labour councillors are only now getting round to promoting the full range of equalities.

Labour councillors have agreed to fund RCRE by a further £45,000 on 'a defined piece of work to be agreed with the Head of Policy, Performance and Community but failed to restore RCRE's  core funding grant as according to the Cabinet report on the issue the service outlined in the service level agreement  'was limited to race equality, where a wider equalities perspective is now envisaged'.

Labour councillors have agreed to set up a new equalities body which will...scrutinise the Council among other public bodies (despite being dependent on the Council for all it's funding).

8. Absent Friends

Finally, it's easy in the discussion of Labour's priorities to forget the two councillors that helped make all the above happen: the Greens.

Their two councillors didn't turn up to Cabinet on Monday and once again where absent during discussions about the Council's Budget.

It's possible to draw several conclusions from this and I'm afraid none of them are positive.

At the moment, Reading's Labour councillors are tweaking this year's budget.

The budget we successfully set without closing a single library, sure start centre or leisure service.

For Labour this is the easy part.

But as we speak, officers are preparing options for next years budget.

As I explained last month this will involve needing to find at least £9 million pounds worth of savings or potentially more if they don't stick to our budget.

Behind the scenes Labour councillors are already preparing the ground to make massive cuts to key services in Reading.

The time to start worrying about the future of  those areas we have highlighted which are clearly not priorities to Reading Labour' Party's Town Hall bosses is now.

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