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Holding Labour to account for Council Tax hike

March 8, 2018 11:33 AM

For the second year in a row, council tax payers in Newcastle face an inflation-busting 5% hike in charges as tax demands come through the doors. Liberal Democrats hold both the Labour Council and the Conservative Government responsible for this, and spoke strongly at Newcastle City Council in the face of attacks from the ruling Labour Party.

The Council is sitting with almost £90m in reserves - £35m MORE than when the Liberal Democrats left office in 2011. Yet they have closed libraries and swimming pools, our neighbourhoods are scarred with litter and from fly-tipping, and our roads and pavements are in a very poor state. Yes, they have less money from the Government in grants, although they deliberately exaggerate the scale of this. But Labour must be held accountable for the decisions they and they alone make - for example, to spend £45 million on the civic centre, and to award above-inflation pay rises for senior staff. Not to mention the millions wasted on traffic "management" schemes that make things worse not better.

The Government knows that the demand for adult social care and for supporting vulnerable children is going through the roof - yet they keep their hands in their pockets and pass most of the cost to councils. The cuts in public spending have gone too far and the cracks are showing.

Remember too that Labour had 13 years in government to reform the way social care and local government is funded, but did nothing. And for all their complaints about austerity, remember it was a lax Labour government that allowed the credit bubble of a decade ago and tax evasion on an industrial scale, let the unregulated bankers trash the economy and ended up with the biggest deficit in our history.

Lib Dems in Newcastle have called for specific investment by the council in cleaning our neighbourhoods, reversing the loss of litter bins, addressing the state of roads and pavements, restoring the school-crossing patrols that Labour stopped funding last year and scrapping the plan to double the charges of garden waste collection. For the year ahead, our proposals would cost just over 1% of the money that Labour has stashed away in reserves, less IN TOTAL than the unplanned additional dividend about to be received by the council from its shareholding in Newcastle airport, or a fraction of the unexpected bonus money that the council is receiving from its sell-off of the Jesmond Dene nurseries site to fund retirement flats and executive family homes.

Labour have belatedly announced plans to spend £1m of this windfall on investing in play areas. They haven't been willing to do so in previous years, leading to neglect and deterioriation of our city's play areas. Fortunately, Lib Dem councillors have been at the forefront of community efforts to save play facilities, and have helped to raise funds to improve play areas from Dinnington in the north west to Iris Brickfield in the east of the city.

"Labour's last minute rabbit from the hat is for the few. The Lib Dem budget amendments are for the many. Faced with a choice between new play equipment which Lib Dem councillors have already funded or restoring crossing patrols Labour has already taken away, we believe parents will back our proposals," said the Leader of the Liberal Democrats Cllr Anita Lower.

"Who has the right priorities for our city? You can decide on May 3rd."

The Liberal Democrats Opposition budget amendments were as follows:

Amendment 1 - Waste Collection and Garden Waste Charges

Defer the proposal to increase charges for the garden waste collection service but maintain operation of Brunswick Recycling Centre which Labour proposes to close. Cost of £320,000 in 2018/19 to be met from the increase in the Airport Dividend Reserve.

Amendment 2 - Local Services: Neighbourhood street cleaning

An additional £0.5m in 2018/19 for cleaning up the city (not just the centre but all areas in all wards that need it). Budget provision to be met from the increase in the Airport Dividend Reserve.

Amendment 3 - Roads and pavements

We propose a one-off funding taking £2.6m from the £5.2m capital expenditure already identified for Highways and Footpaths Improvements so as to give each ward a locally-determined budget of £100,000, as used to be the practice, to deal with the highest priority improvements over the next two years.

Amendment 4 - School crossing patrols

Reinstate the funding of school crossing patrols that was removed from the 2017-18 current year budget and/or planned for 2018-19. Budget provision of £225,000 to be met from the increase in the Airport Dividend Reserve.

Amendment 5 -

Purchase and deploy an additional 200 large litter bins across the city in the most-littered areas, local members to be involved with decisions on location. Capital cost from Prudential Borrowing over 10 years expressed as revenue cost plus cost of emptying the bins is £150,000 per annum. To be raised from sponsorship - as per the proposal in the budget for funding Christmas Lights in this fashion.

The amendments were all voted down by the ruling Labour group (41-20) who then forced through the council tax rises.

The Police and Crime precept has risen by a jaw dropping 12% plus, and the Fire precept exceeds inflation too.

In support of the amendments, Cllr Wendy Taylor, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats Group said:

Over the last 7 years we have heard more or less the same budget speeches from Labour Councillors. How the state of Local Government finances is all the fault of the nasty Coalition Government. 3 years after the Liberal Democrats left Government they still try to claim we are somehow responsible for the actions of the Tory Government, yet 5 minutes after Labour lost power in 2010, Labour Councillors were busy denying any responsibility for the mess the country was in. So just to remind you that in 2010 there was no money left, that Labour left our country with a mountain of debt, that every minute the government were spending a staggering £80,000 on interest- over £800 million a week, that the Labour Party covered up the details of the £44bn of cuts they themselves had planned, that Labour had made billions of pounds of unfunded spending promises, cynically raising people's hopes when they knew the coffers were bare.

And that they helped create the fiscal bombshell in the first place by refusing to take action against the reckless banks even when Vince Cable warned of the risks they were taking.

Have said that, over the last 7 years Liberal Democrats have agreed with Labour colleagues that local Government has had to take far more than its share of the cuts being made. We have condemned the unfairness of the cuts imposed by the Tory Government & the blatant political manoeuvring that has led to Tory Councils getting benefiting at the expense of urban areas.
However we are also highly critical of Labour Councillors for failing to push forward with measures we have suggested for making savings. For example the move towards shared services has been painfully slow and needs to gain some real momentum. 2 years ago I explained at the budget meeting how Liberal Democrat run Sutton was making huge overall savings through joint commissioning and shared services
saving £10.5 million by joint commissioning of Community Safety Services with the Metropolitan Police
saving £10m by sharing the Payroll and employee database with Kingston, Richmond and Merton Council
saving £4million sharing IT service with Kingston
saving £1,300,000 by sharing HR services with Merton
saving another £200, 000 sharing the Adult Emergency Duty Team between Merton, Richmond, Kingston
saving £600,000 through a joint waste partnership between Merton, Croydon and Kingston.

The steps this Council has taken towards shared services have been hesitant and painfully slow, yet such savings could easily pay for the amendments we have suggested to the budget both this year and in the future. There has been some progress towards integration of health and social care, but this needs to move more quickly

As regards this year's proposals for adult care, the budget states "we will continue to manage demand for and reduce reliance on adult social care services" with the proposal to reduce the budget by £720, 000 for early intervention and by over £2.5m for continuing care. Yet with an aging population, it has proved difficult to make planned savings in the past and when we look at the estimated outturn for 2017/18 the Council is projecting a £4.6m potential overspend on its net revenue budget, with the main area of pressure relating to adult and children's social care. So how confident can we be that this year's proposed saving are any more achievable and we share the concern expressed by Healthwatch that the proposals could lead to some needs not being met and some people accessing care only at the point of crisis. We also share the concern that the introduction of a charge for the Money Management service could have a negative impact on the take-up of the service. NCVS also have valid concerns about the risk of the cuts leading to job losses in the voluntary and private sector, which could increase the negative effects of the cuts.

The amendments we are putting forward mirror the concerns raised by almost all the residents I speak to. They are concerned about the deterioration of their local areas, the appalling state of their roads and pavements, the huge number of unrepaired potholes, the increase in litter, the lack of grounds maintenance & the removal of litter bins. The proposed increased charge for collecting green waste at a time when the Council is struggling with recycling rates makes no sense and will I am sure be counter-productive and the sudden availability of a £1m clean up fund just a few weeks before the local elections will do nothing to tackle the underlying problem of neighbourhood neglect.

Of course the cuts are unfair & yet again it's a difficult budget, but we believe Labour continue to make the wrong choices. Our proposals would allow us to deal with many of the concerns raised by Newcastle residents & I urge Council to accept them