Liberal Democrats' vision for a better Newcastle laid out during debate on the City Council. No coherent response from Labour

March 4, 2020 9:49 PM

Cllrs Ferguson and Hall 2019Nine Years. Nine long years. That's nine years that this Labour Administration has been in power in our City, during which time they have played but one tune: a single note symphony on the theme of austerity, Cllr Colin Ferguson, who speaks for Newcastle Liberal Democrats, told the City Council's Budget debate tonight. (Pictured here with Cllr Phil Hall who seconded the Liberal Democrats amendments

No-one is denying the financial pressures facing the Council, and both the Opposition and members of the public recognise that difficult choices need to be made in the face of severe financial constraints. Austerity is, at best, paused, if even that. But in their rhetoric and their approaches in recent years, Labour have appeared to want to do nothing more than wait for Jeremy Corbyn to come charging over the hill with a big financial hose, to spray us all with cash and return us to a situation long since passed.

The Opposition always believed this was unlikely, and with the crushing result for Labour in the General Election, you would have thought that this would become apparent for the Administration. The public clearly want action, not words, from their political representatives; and yet it is a relentless repetition of rhetoric that we hear from Newcastle Labour; it's more dither and delay; it's excuses and blame, instead of ownership of the circumstances.

The National Context

On some subjects, the Opposition will make common cause with the Administration. The Government needs to provide Local Authorities with a long-term financial settlement that allows proper planning for the future: on that we agree. The Fair Funding Review needs to recognise the particular challenges facing authorities like Newcastle and properly Level Up: on that we agree. Adult Social Care is in crisis, and spiralling costs need to be properly grappled with by the Government: on that we absolutely agree.

However, it is simply unrealistic to expect the Government to fund every whim of Local Authorities. Whether we like it or not, the policy direction from Westminster has been clear for a long time: Councils are now responsible for a significant proportion of their funding.

Yes, there are particular funds for particular purposes, and the Administration needs to do far better at leveraging these. But surely now is the time to lobby passionately, unceasingly, and urgently for proper reform to Council Tax and Business Rates?

Both taxes are no longer fit for purpose. Council tax is deeply regressive, and business rates are throttling the High Street in the face of online competition. I call on the Administration to change their tune, and demand genuine reform of local government finance, rather than their current supine acquiescence to the status quo. The Lib Dems have proposed a Land Value Tax- this is one way that genuine change could be implemented, to the benefit of both Local Authorities and taxpayers alike.

The Local Context

Much is made locally of the £327m we are informed the Council will have lost from its revenue budget since 2010. The majority of this are described as cost pressures. But what are "cost pressures"?

Some we might recognise: pay inflation, particularly in social care, and recently as a result of increases in the National Minimum Wage. The Administration argues that these are broadly "external" factors. But when neighbourhood response teams, for example, are included in this figure, I have to question what the figure we're looking at really means.

To be clear, the Opposition welcomes the reinvestment in Neighbourhood Response Teams. But why is this not classified as a budgetary choice to spend? Similarly, shouldn't the Council's decision to declare a Climate Emergency not be embraced as a proactive choice to do something for future generations? And what of under-performance in the Council's property portfolio? Are we to seriously believe that there are no internal controls whatsoever to grapple with this, and that Government should fund our shortfall?

Telling residents that the City will have lost "an astonishing £2,481 per household" sets an utterly unrealistic expectation about what Newcastle could possibly hope to receive in even the most wildly optimistic of scenarios. We should level with the City: it's time to take ownership of our revenue generation, the Climate Crisis, and this Council's own decisions.

Consider, if you will as examples:

● The Northern Access Corridor project, including Killingworth Road and Haddricks Mill, is projected to be £2m over budget;
● The much vaunted work to replace street lighting- planned expenditure has pushed back - delayed, at what ultimate cost?
● Road and pavement works, urgently and desperately needed- planned expenditure pushed back - again, delayed;
● Installation of electric charging points - a third don't work!
● Costs for waste disposal - spiralling - and the causes (is it basic costs, or is it contamination?) obscured.

The list goes on.

This stuff matters, because you've got to get it right if you want to protect and fund vital services. There is no fudge to the numbers that will obscure that.

The truth is that the Council's income is expected to increase by £7.5m. That's actually £10.8m more than we were told to expect in the Medium Term Plan last year. Residents will be right to be sceptical about the spin the Administration wants to put on their figures.

Our Amendments

The Opposition is constrained by Standing Orders in its response to this budget, and we are obligated to submit a list of line-by-line amendments. But even with that, we can demonstrate that an alternative is possible, and that the Administration's rhetoric is inconsistent with the reality of its budgetary approach.

Our amendments deliver incremental change, as part of a project to declare time for a new direction for the Council. My colleagues will expand on much of this in more detail, but I want to go through the headlines.

Firstly, we believe the Administration's ambitions in relation to the Climate Emergency are sub-par and under-funded. We are appalled that the promised proposals will be delayed to the summer. I note, incidentally, that no such delays and prevarication afflicted South Tyneside Council, so it must be possible. We would double the funding available for proposals arising from the Climate Change Committee, using a prudent amount of reserves to kickstart urgent change. What else is this but an emergency that the reserves are there for?

Secondly, we would move to introduce a Workplace Parking Levy, in line with that of Nottingham City Council, to provide further funding for Climate and Transport projects. We are not afraid to take difficult decisions at this time of year, especially when it's absolutely necessary, when the fate of future generations hangs in the balance. Dither and delay is poor sustenance when the City's underwater and the sky's on fire!

Thirdly, we would defer the swingeing cut to subsidies for parking for people with disabilities. It stretches credulity that the Administration stood in this chamber last year and insisted there was no possible alternative, only to defer implementation for this entire financial year. How are we supposed to take their protestations seriously when they say one thing and do another on this most vital of issues for the people it affects?

We support the Elders Council in their call to defer this move during a time of transformation and change. How appalling to dismiss this as a cheap political shot.

And finally, we would put the Council's money where its mouth is, discontinuing the mothballed remainder of the Great North City Fund and reversing the majority of the cut to the Newcastle Fund. It's time to meaningfully support our vital Community and Voluntary Services, rather than paying lip service to the ideal.

Cutting funding to voluntary services is fundamentally self-defeating, and it beggars belief that this Administration will spin the funding position this year, acknowledge the Sector's concerns, and then sit on a fund that could make a difference if redirected. Wrong priorities.

The Liberal Democrat Vision

But our amendments are but one part of a bold, alternative vision for this City. A Budget is inextricably wrapped up in the political, policy and practical decisions that an administration takes in the short- and long-term. The Opposition, therefore, is constrained by the political choices made by this Administration over several years.

Over successive budget years, a Liberal Democrat Administration would seek to maximise income generation through capital investment, in a prudent and proportionate manner. We would look at opportunities in traded services, particularly where innovative options arise.

The Administration does not have its priorities clear in this regard, and has not moved quickly enough in the past to respond to the new realities. Why else would a £2m shortfall in Property be written into the budget for future years?

Supporting our local businesses to thrive is vital. However, the Opposition believes that funding free parking after 5pm, and encouraging private car usage in the evenings, is fundamentally inconsistent with the pressures of grappling with the City's Air Quality Crisis and the Climate Emergency. Now is the time to act. The Opposition would enter into discussions with NE1 to discontinue the current free parking incentives, subject to legal advice, and reinvest the funds in public transport improvements.

In the medium term, the Liberal Democrats would seek to introduce a new community investment fund, the Newcastle Change Fund, and would work over the coming year to identify resources for this ambitious goal. This fund would support employability, skills training, and small businesses. Alongside this, we would revolutionise the much reduced system of ward budgets, and seek dynamic alignment between the currently competing objectives of the multifarious system of funds on offer.

I am perplexed about the Administration's lack of ambition in relation to increasing the City's tree cover. The City Council passed an amended motion to plant a tree for every newborn in the City- around at least 3,000 by current statistics- over the next ten years, but in this budget there is not a peep on that revised aspiration.

It is typical of the Administration that the possibilities in this regard are limited to what they believe they can afford, rather than how the Council's influence can be leveraged to encourage a wide range of stakeholder groups to facilitate tree planting. Local ward Councillors in the Opposition Group are already demonstrating the possibilities in this regard, and the Liberal Democrats would go further: it's time for action.

Conclusion

One final point, Lord Mayor: I, like many people, am utterly flabbergasted that a consultation process that lasted since the middle of December, has included numerous meetings of Scrutiny Committees, and has been the subject of a number of responses from the public, has changed this Budget not a jot. Is this seriously the response of an Administration that's willing to listen, to collaborate, and to take on board the opinions of the residents it purports to represent?

The Liberal Democrats will listen. And by seeking opportunities in commercial investment and traded services, meaningfully empowering our local communities, and reversing self-defeating cuts, the Liberal Democrats believe that a time of change is possible. I am pleased to propose a set of useful and meaningful amendments to this budget that make real progress on the Climate Crisis and reverse swingeing cuts. The Liberal Democrats demand better for Newcastle upon Tyne.