Newcastle's Budget 2019 - Liberal Democrats approach

March 7, 2019 12:32 PM

Cllrs Ferguson and Hall 2019Here's what Cllr Colin Ferguson (pictured with Cllr Phil Hall, right, who chairs the Budget and Finance Scrutiny Committee) said in launching the Liberal Democrats' approach to Newcastle's 2019 budget which saw Labour hiking Council Tax by 3.95% and cutting services by £20 million, highlighting that the budget is based upon Labour's choices.

"This Labour Administration is fond of looking backwards, so I thought I'd start with a history lesson. The year is 1997. A bright fresh third-way politician steps into Downing Street, heading the first Labour Government in nearly twenty years. For the first few years, the Labour administration promises fiscal restraint.

But soon the lure of spending money becomes too great. The use of the Private Finance Initiative vastly expands, pushing Government spending off balance sheet and into the future. This Council will spend an estimated £47.4m on it in 2018/19 alone. Sensible restrictions on banks are relaxed, precipitating a disastrous financial collapse that required £500bn of Government funding. When voters reacted at the ballot box, it was Lib Dem MP David Laws who was greeted with former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne's shocking note: "I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left."

Much has been made in this Chamber about austerity, and the actions of Government from 2010 onwards, without ever acknowledging the circumstances before it when labour was in power nationally. And there is no doubt that the financial position for Local Government and for some of the most vulnerable in society has been deeply, troublingly challenging.

I expect to hear much more about austerity this evening. But I want to be abundantly clear: this Council has choices. And whatever the protests otherwise from those opposite, it is Labour's choices that creates this budget, and the impact that arises from it.

The Opposition argues that this is a budget with deep-seated, structural and conceptual flaws. That this is a budget that fails even on its own terms. And that this is a budget that our amendments demonstrate is the Labour administration's choice, however they may want to paint it.

Macro/Structural

When I first stood to speak in this Chamber, I asked where our performance indicators and organisational targets were. I expressed a deep unease that I was not clear on the Labour Administration's vision and strategic direction. In the intervening time, my concern has only solidified.

We have been assured that successive budgets would not salami slice, but in the absence of a clear sense of direction, how can that be possible?

There is no vision, no idea of what Local Government in this City looks like in the 2020s and beyond. I challenge individual Cabinet members in this debate to tell me what their portfolio area will look like in three, five and ten years' time. Is there a credible narrative that can be put forward?

A strategy requires a sense of direction and a road map of getting there. A list of priorities only tells us what we can expect to be cut last. If all we hear this evening are helpless complaints about the external environment and the actions of the Government in Westminster, then we know there is no Vision.

The clearest roadmap we have for the Council is this Budget and the basis for planning it introduces. But is this a case of the financial tail wagging the forward planning dog?

Councils are not unique amongst organisations in this country for being subject to the policy whims of MPs in Westminster. Yet countless organisations across the Country are able to provide a strategic direction anyway, that adapts and changes over time as any good strategy should. This Council prefers to cut big and cut often without ever articulating an end goal.

This budget is based on two mistaken assumptions: first, that Jeremy Corbyn will come galloping over the hill on his charger very soon, swoop into Government, and return Local Government funding to levels seen in 2000's; and second, that Newcastle Labour doesn't need to worry at the ballot box. Both are fundamentally incorrect.

Local Government has experienced crippling cuts: on that we can agree. Westminster likes to push problems outwards without considering the financial or practical consequences: on that we can also agree. But the idea that the only possible response is to be reactive to circumstance whilst we wait and hope does a deep disservice to the residents of this City, many of whom have long since give up that Labour will prioritise a proactive approach.

We cannot wait for the faint promise of a Labour Government that may or may not provide some additional funding to Local Government. And we must not operate on the assumption that Local Government will go back to where it was.

Failing on Its Own Terms

But even if you disagree with me on these points, and I'm sure that many opposite will, it is the Opposition's clear view that this is a Budget that fails on its own terms.

Much is made of the report of the Newcastle Fairness Commission. The Opposition agrees that it's especially when times are tough that fairness is most important. How does this Budget stack up against those lofty principles?

Fair Share: the Reserves position continues to improve beyond the forecast: an estimated £22m is now expected compared to only a couple of years ago. We're told that we can prudently draw down on reserves and expect them to decrease over time, but the observed pattern is generally on the up! If Jeremy is waiting just around the corner to come and sort things, why are we putting money in earmarked reserves that we have no itemised plans to use? Is it better to have this money funding vital services of filling Council coffers?

Fair Play: is that how anyone who reads the Integrated Impact Assessments will feel about how some of this Budget's decisions affect those with protected characteristics? There is no point in writing an Assessment if you're going to blithely ignore it.

Fair Go: if Libraries and Museums shorten their opening hours or close entirely on certain days, would we really say that residents and families have proper opportunities to participate and a chance to fulfil their aspirations for the future?

Fair Say: Is it a fair hearing to announce a savage cut to Shopmobility without having even consulted with users? Is this what Labour means when they say "For the Many, not the Few"? Talking to them only after the initial proposal is made presents a foregone conclusion; there was no attempt to engage with users about how they felt about the funding situation.

Or the concerned residents who have submitted the Brunswick petition this evening? If you say it's going to close, and it's written that it's going to close, it's reasonable to assume that you want it to close.

Our Amendments

Cllr McCarty (Labour's Deputy Leader) once glibly suggested that we would do well to read Labour's papers more thoroughly, the better to unwaveringly support them. But now it's Cllr McCarty who would do well to read our amendments!

Every single one of our amendments on services commits to the options analysis or consultation that was sadly lacking the first time around. Our amendments seek to provide a year in which Labour can redo their working and submit their thinking again. We contend that the Labour administration have not fully considered all options. The only reason we would be back at Square One next year is if Labour squander the opportunity we're providing them with to think again.

We sincerely back the principle of behaviour change. But we are unconvinced that this will be effective as a result of one-off funding. One-off ward spring cleans may sound good on the doorstep, but they don't replace proper, consistent action on littering in our City. These actions should be a firm feature of a proper Waste Strategy.

The Great North City Fund was announced to great fanfare in April 2017, but has been little utilised since. We should redirect it towards urgent need, as we suggest. If Labour votes down this amendment, we challenge the portfolio holder to bring forward a itemised plan accounting for how this will be spent.

This budget is made up of Labour's choices. Our amendments go some way to giving the Administration time to think again. But if our amendments are voted down, I should remind you that it is Labour candidates that will need to look Brunswick Tip users, Blue Badge holders, Shopmobility users, and the Community & Volunteering Sector in the eye and say: "we chose to cut the service you value."

We call on Labour to itemise how the £8.5m 'profit' from parking income and fines is being spent. If they decide to introduce charging as part of their air quality plans, we call on Labour to account for exactly how they intend to invest any new revenue arising from charging introduced as part of their air quality plans.

We demand Labour pledge to match the Liberal Democrats' new policy on efficient use of reserves, by placing a presumption of a time limit for the use of all earmarked reserves, ensuring their timely and efficient usage for the benefit of all residents.

And we challenge Labour to provide more information on their capital investment strategy, including accounting for why so much funding goes to the City Centre.

Conclusion

We need a vision for the future, a vision that only the Liberal Democrats in this City seem willing to provide. A vision that builds shared services, genuinely develops partnership working to meet objectives, prioritises proactivity over reactivity, and uses reserves in a prudent, timely and efficient manner. A vision that places Local Government at the heart of facilitating organisations and stakeholders to work together for the benefit of the whole City. A vision fundamentally rooted in the communities that Labour seems to have forgotten.

This is a Labour administration that prioritises leaflets over services, PR hits over proper delivery, and under-utilised reserves over revenue spending. The Liberal Democrats Demand Better for our City."