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Get a grip on Newcastle's finances, Liberal Democrats tell Labour services cutters

March 4, 2017 4:33 PM

We have an administration picking needless fights with its own loyal workforce, a cabinet that doesn't have a grip on the City's finances and so many missed opportunities to generate income that manifests itself in cuts to vital services.

The City is disproportionately affected by the cuts it is having to impose in these three years compared to the rest of the country, Cllr Dominic Raymont told the budget meeting of Newcastle City Council. The lack of fairness in how the Tory government has hit areas such as Newcastle is of course a factor, and the Liberal Democrats have always supported Cllr Forbes in his dealings with the government on issues such as social care, shown by the unanimous motion at last council.

However, the other issue for the people of this city to contend with is the distinct lack of grip on the city's finances and the missed opportunities that are demonstrated in the Labour budget document we are debating tonight.

Nothing demonstrated this lack of grip for me more than the events of November 2016 around the announcement to cut the wages of loyal and hardworking city workers who work weekends and evenings. So on 1 November we got the brief announcement from Cllr Dunn - a cut of £2.5m from the pay of around 1800 workers in the city.

Then the next evening, in what was personally a real low spot in my council service to date, we saw a city car park attendant interviewed on Look North. This lady was reduced to tears having fully considered the impact of what Cllr Dunn was proposing, and told the reporter that she would lose her house if this went ahead, and she didn't know how she would cope financially. This was a truly awful watch, and I hope it was for the members opposite too. It showed the human impact of what was proposed.

Then came the e mails - 50 or more which I received (and replied to) telling similar real life stories of the hardship this would cause, and the lost sleep since the announcement. One gentleman told me that he had always worked hard, done his best, been a solid Labour man, but he couldn't understand why he was being treated like this and as such he wouldn't be supporting them anymore. All the while we were told by the administration that this was tough but necessary, the money had to be found and this is what things had come to.

Fast forward (or very slow forward for the 1800 loyal council staff with this threat hanging over them) to 29 November, there are strikes looming and questions seemingly now being raised by some members opposite (and by the way thank you, whoever on the other side it was). All of a sudden, and from nowhere, £2.2m was 'found' (from reserves, pension fund efficiencies and senior management) to enable the welcome cancellation of this proposal. But how come this £2.2m wasn't known about a month before, or was it? A month where staff were worried sick about paying their basic household bills, while all along perhaps the cabinet knew they had the flexibility in the budget to not have to implement this shoddy proposal in the first place.

The lack of grip and judgement demonstrated here rather undermines the whole of this budget quite frankly, and in particular the very high reserves figure, especially when key services are being cut so hard. The cost of this lack of grip Lord Mayor, was felt by the City's most loyal, hardworking staff, who have endured a month of being literally worried sick, and all for absolutely no reason whatsoever. A shameful episode for a Labour party that positions itself as the party for working people - Newcastle now knows the truth on that one.

I want now to turn to some of the lost opportunities in this budget, but in a positive way, and welcome Cllr Forbes' recent change of heart on implementing shared services with neighbouring councils as a way of generating savings. And I stress the word recent - as late as April 2016 during the last election campaign, Cllr Forbes was quoted in this election leaflet, responding to Lib Dem calls for what he is now proposing. Here's what he said:

This is an astonishing attack on centuries of Newcastle history and on our city's identity. It is incredible that as we gather to celebrate the 800th anniversary of our Lord Mayor the Lib Dems have decided on your behalf that all this should be swept away

Word for word Lord Mayor, completely opposed a year ago to working in partnership on shared services, but now Labour policy - again that question of judgement and grip. The serious issue for the budget here though is the cost of this ideologically driven delay. This budget talks of '10% savings by 2020' that could be realised by sharing services. With earlier adoption and listening to the Lib Dems these savings could have been cashed more in this 3 year plan rather than the next one.

And the lack of progress on taking opportunities continues in their commercial profit forecast. Talking to more senior colleagues I realise this issue has been on the table for years. All the reports over the years, all the ideas, all the staff time taken and all the promises. And for what - a rather 'finger in the air' £100,000 profit forecast for next year, at a time when other councils and public bodies are leaving us behind in this area. If they had started quicker, and promptly implemented reports they commissioned this council could have been generating far more revenue. Another example of Lib Dem ideas, Labour inaction.

From this income they could have cancelled forever cuts to school crossing patrols and the ludicrous communal bin proposal, that in our alternative proposals we can only commit to defer for a year

At the end of the budget debate, Labour councillors voted down Liberal Democrat proposals which would have slightly softened the blows of Labour cuts - by taking money from bloated reserves, which the Council's finance chief had endorsed as affordable. Labour councillors then applauded themselves for this shameful partisanship.