Reactionary Labour fails to embrace public sector reform to save money

February 17, 2016 2:04 PM
By Greg Stone
Newcastle Labour leader Nick Forbes was quick to disparage the idea of carrying out a scrutiny review of whether merger of Newcastle and North Tyneside councils could lead to significant efficiency savings and help to guard against further cuts to services. Under his leadership there has been precious little progress on the theme of shared services and joint working with other councils and public sector organisations, despite huge pressures on budgets.
This is an important issue which is worthy of further consideration, and it is regrettable that Cllr Forbes and his Labour colleagues have sought to advance what can only be described as a "straw man" argument against it, rather than genuine evidence.
No one is seriously suggesting that Newcastle's city designation or history would disappear. One has only to look to the City of Durham, which retains its city status and mayoralty despite the creation of a Durham unitary council. It could be argued that the North East elected mayor does far more to affect Newcastle's historical status than this proposal. We should also remember Newcastle in its current form dates only as far back as 1974: prior to this the likes of Gosforth, Newburn, and the former Castle district were in Northumberland, not Newcastle. Newcastle and North Tyneside comprise a conurbation with a shared identity. Not many people could accurately tell you where the boundaries between Walkergate and Wallsend lie.
The potential advantages of a merged council deserve further investigation. A Newcastle & North Tyneside council would have the size and resources to compete with the likes of Leeds, Sheffield, or Manchester, and would be a formidable presence on the NE Combined Authority - not something that generally said of Newcastle at the moment. By eliminating the need for two expensive chief executives and senior management teams, duplication of finance and HR teams, and two separate systems of bin collections significant savings could be made to the advantage of local residents and taxpayers.
Joining forces would create a powerful and effective local authority structure that could make decisions on services, schools, transport, and planning in a joined-up way. It would also afford an opportunity for urban parish councils to manage local environmental services and community facilities in communities that wanted them: Gosforth, North Shields, Wallsend, Whitley Bay and Tynemouth spring to mind. Northumberland and Durham are proving that this "town council" approach can work well.
Under Cllr Forbes' leadership the only functions which Newcastle council have not cut are the numbers of councillors and the senior management budget. It is difficult to escape the conclusion he would rather retain a system which protects him and his supporters whilst services are slashed, rather than contemplate real public sector reform which would benefit Newcastle, North Tyneside, and all of its population.
Clearly any decision would need to be carefully considered, and unlike Nick Forbes' Combined Authority elected mayor plans, subject to approval from voters in a referendum. There needs to be more debate on this issue, not less, and the Lib Dem proposed scrutiny review is a sensible place to start.
THis is the text of a letter from Cllr Greg Stone, Lib Dem, Newcastle City Council to The Journal newspaper