Invest in roads and pavements : But there's still waste in Council spending
The last 12 months has been incredibly difficult for the Council and staff have worked incredibly hard to keep services running whilst dealing with the effects of a pandemic that has been immeasurably worse than anyone could have predicted. As Liberal Democrats opposition spokesperson on health and social care, last night Cllr Wendy Taylor, put on record our thanks to all the public health and social care staff who have done an amazing job to try and keep the citizens of Newcastle safe.
She said during the City Council's Budget debate : "We understand the costs involved and the particular difficulties of this year's budget.
We also recognise the Tory Government's utter failure year after year to provide local Councils with the funding necessary to improve the health of our citizens and to care fully for those children and adults who need our support. In particular, it is an utter disgrace that Councils are yet again being forced to raise Council Tax just to cope with the Government's inability to sort out a fair and sustainable way to fund adult social care. But the large increase in Council Tax this year will be hard for many people whose finances have been hit by the pandemic. The savings we have found for our amendment would allow a small reduction in Council Tax bills for these hard pressed residents, without in any way affecting the money available for social care.
Lord Mayor year after year we have heard Cllr Forbes claiming that the Council would go over a precipice without more money, but in fact by finding new ways of working, that hasn't happened. For example, we very much welcome that new ways of working in adult social care over the last few years have led to savings without serious damage to services. In fact many of the changes have led to better services, such as the moves towards intermediate care and more extra care housing, and the proposals in the budget to modernise the way we care for adults with learning disabilities will I'm sure improve their quality of life.
As I said last year, I am concerned by the proposal to remove the automatic £5 per week income disregard for Disability Related Expenditure when calculating a service user's contributions towards the cost of community-based services. When looked at together with the charges for parking for blue badge holders, which we strongly oppose, this does seem to be an unfair attack on disabled residents. I'm also concerned about the proposal to recover unused direct payments, as many users don't manage their finances well and may have difficulty repaying this money.
On public health, we understand the move away from individual funding towards more population based measures, but there was poor consultation with some voluntary groups who carry out this work for the Council and who feared they would have severe funding problems as a result of this change. I understand that discussions are now taking place to try to allay these concerns, but this was poorly managed. We rely so much on the excellent work done by charities and voluntary and community groups in our City and are disappointed that funding for the voluntary sector is decreasing. Which is why one of our amendments would provide additional finance for the voluntary sector.
As I've said many times over the last few years, I'm also disappointed about the very slow progress made by the Council on shared services, which has the potential to save a huge amount of money.
As a ward Councillor, I'm very concerned that the direction of travel of the Labour Council continues to lead to deterioration in the state of our local neighbourhoods. There is more litter, more dog dirt, less grounds maintenance and a total refusal to maintain trees. Residents are being told that if a tree on the public highway is blocking their light or overhanging their house, they can pay to have it pruned. That's unacceptable.
And what about our roads and pavements. This week is Pothole Watch week, when cycling groups are calling attention to the sorry state of many of our streets and the risk that potholes can pose to cyclists. Labour Councillors say that want to encourage more people to cycle, but there's not much incentive when so many of our residential streets are in such a shocking state. I had a walk round my ward last weekend and was frankly horrified. I have been asking for streets to be resurfaced, rather than just filling in potholes, but this request is ignored. I can't actually remember when a residential street in my ward was last resurfaced. So what happens is that the repaired potholes break down within a few months and have to be done again. This is an appalling waste of money. So tonight I'm asking the Council to stop wasting money and to do what other Councils have done to deal with the massive backlog of road repairs and that is to make a capital investment.
Southend Council for example has proposed a £50 million pound investment in road and pavements over the next 5 years as part of the Council's capital investment programme. In 2014 Stockport Council agreed a capital investment of over £100 million over 9 years which has led to a massive improvement in the highways condition. If other Councils can do this, so could Newcastle. And it's certainly a top priority for residents to sort out our roads and pavements. We are proposing some extra funding for roads and pavements this year, but I urge Labour Councillors to look a long-term solution.