Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Local Conservative competence vs Labour chaos

For years, the opinion polls have reported a significant Conservative lead over Labour when it comes to handling the economy. Unsurprisingly, the party that presided over the deepest recession in modern history, improper regulation of high risk investment banking and government spending massively outstripping revenue isn’t trusted with the economy.

Fortunately, we have a government which is sensible with public finance and, contrary to Labour’s mantra of misery, the UK economy is also the fastest growing in the developed world. The recovery is fragile given the state of other nations we trade with and the fact that Labour’s legacy, the bloated national deficit, still hangs over us.

The national Labour Party is struggling to come up with a policy which restores its reputation. But it has reluctantly accepted that austerity needs to continue.  That means cuts to public spending will go on no matter who’s in Downing Street next year.
Here in Barnet, the local Labour Party appear to have taken a 'deficit denial' stance, preferring instead the attractions of living in cloud cuckoo land where the council’s budget isn’t going to be reduced by £70million by 2020.  Somehow, in their naive minds, Barnet will escape austerity and it will all be OK as long as we stop spending on ‘consultants’, can ‘put up council tax’ and the old chestnut, ‘cut councillors allowances’.

Anyone with a maths GCSE can quickly work out that none of these measures will plug the very real £70million budget gap the council will have.  Most consultant spend is on the regeneration projects and is minuscule when compared with the overall cost of projects and social/economic benefits.  The increase in business rates, the council tax base and living standards of social tenants will be welcomed.

Historic spending on consultants on the outsourcing projects was also significantly outweighed by the savings made by the new contracts.  Again, Labour is in denial about those savings and all because they require a private company to help us make them.  Barnet Labour group’s 1970 mindset is: private = very bad, public sector = the only possible way a service can be delivered. 

The council uses consultants because we need the expertise and it will deliver long term savings.  Much of it is also from capital so diverting it will not permanently solve the cut to our revenue funding. 

Putting up council tax is also not an option, politically or practically.  A 1% increase equates to an extra £1.5million revenue and there is a requirement for a referendum if councils want an increase more than 2%.  Even a 5% increase would not go anywhere near to plugging the £70million gap.  Given that council tax was a ‘top three concern’ of residents a year ago, we all know what the results of a costly referendum would be.  Besides, the Conservatives retained control of the council pledging to freeze council tax for the next two years, so the referendum has, in effect, already been held.

Then we turn to councillors’ allowances from which we’ve already saved circa £90,000 via the new committee system.  If we completely scrapped allowances, which no other council is doing, it would not even scratch the surface of the £70million gap and would threaten the broad mix of councillors we have in the chamber today.

What about a combination of all these?  Well, if we put aside the fact they’re impractical and cutting consultant spend would put at risk some much needed transformation and regeneration schemes, we’d still have a huge budget gap that can only be addressed by changing council services.  On the subject of risk, its something council critics love to rant about but they also hate it when we spend the necessary money to address it.  They can’t have it both ways. 

There is no easy way to address such a large savings requirement.  If Labour does not know this deep down then they lack the necessary intelligence and ability to apply that intelligence to the real world.  If they do know it, it's telling they never come up with a credible alternative to what is proposed.  They oppose everything and propose nothing which is the luxury of opposition politics.  I can understand them playing politics but it's cruel to tell residents that the money is there to save certain services when it isn’t.  It’s irresponsible to suggest nothing needs to change or oppose a savings suggestion without putting another forward.
When you look at the proposals put forward by the council in a calm manner, they're sensible and have much less of an impact on services than what neighbouring Labour boroughs have done.  Brent shut half its library service despite receiving more funding per resident than Barnet.  Is Barnet proposing to shut half of its libraries?  No.  Could we?  Yes, but we don't  want to.  There would be a reduced level of service but that's all we can afford (Labour is still happy to spend money the taxpayer can't afford). There's one option where all libraries would remain open in some form or another which is generous when you consider less than 20% of people in Barnet borrow books from a council library.

Last night’s CELs committee was a classic example of Labour’s denial. If Labour don’t want to change the library service how else will they make savings?  Unsurprisingly, they didn’t address that matter.  On nursery schools, how will they fund an ongoing, unfair and unsustainable subsidy?  Silence.

I don’t expect residents to be fully aware of the council’s finances although the issue of fairness was obviously lost on one resident who shouted ‘where do Tory councillor’s send their children?’.  If I could have spoken to him I would have answered there is no subsidised nursery school where I live and this is the case for most in Barnet.  Perhaps then he would have realised he’s asking parents across the borough to pay for a service they themselves would not benefit from.  Would that have changed his mind or would his self-interested attitude prevailed?

I suspect many on the Labour side are relieved they’re not running the council as they would have had to move out of the very comfortable cloud cuckoo land and into reality. 

Reality isn’t easy and, in this age of hysteria, it involves being screamed at by all sorts and hearing about grossly dramatic and over the top 'consequences' of most proposals to save money. The genuinely affected and disappointed; the misinformed; the self interested; the politically motivated and those who find it therapeutic to scream at the council (they exist), they all want to shout councillors down.  Some will talk reasonably but all of these groups have one thing in common: they do not have to balance the council’s books.  Some just want to grab their bit of funding and run. 

Labour have chosen to run from the very real challenges of the council but thankfully we have a strong Conservative administration which will see through all the noise and, as its always done, do the right thing for the borough.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Welfare reform: making sure money goes to where it's needed

In the 1990s, my mother voluntarily ran a Saturday play scheme in a neighbouring village.  The National Children’s Home had previously resourced the scheme and when they withdrew she led efforts to keep it going.

I occasionally helped my mother out and was impressed by how much the children enjoyed attending and how my mother selflessly kept the scheme open.  I have several good memories of this period but one incident opened my eyes to a way of life not known to me and helped influence my views on the ineffective welfare state.

To attend a day trip organised by the scheme, each child needed a parental consent form.  One afternoon, a young brother and sister arrived but with no such form.  Their parents had sent them unwashed, wearing dirty clothes and with rumbling stomachs.

My mother went to their house to ask their parents to sign some forms.  They weren’t in but a neighbour told her where they’d be: the social club.  My mother went to the club and found them sat outside, well presented, enjoying the sun with pints of lager, crisps and cigarettes.  A professional and tactful woman, she simply asked for the forms to be signed and promptly left to feed their children and get the trip started.

I later found out the parents concerned were living entirely on benefits and their children were often in the state in which they arrived that afternoon.  I was saddened and annoyed that the parents looked after themselves with the benefits they received, but not their children.

Not all benefit claimants make the right choices with their money and this is why I’m so pleased to hear Iain Duncan Smith’s announcement about benefit ‘smart cards’.  Cash is too easy to spend recklessly and, for some, when it isn’t worked for its value is decreased and purpose blurred. Determined money wasters may find ways around any system, but at least the Government is making it more difficult.  Simply by existing, the cards make the statement that benefits are for essentials, not to fund a way of life and certainly not at the expense of a dependant’s welfare.

The main criticisms of such cards seem to revolve around stigma, however, this can be easily avoided by what the cards look like and how easy they are to use.  If it looks like a normal bank card I cannot see how it will prompt embarrassment at the shops.  A small proportion of a card user’s benefits may need to be available in cash for minor incidentals, birthday presents etc but that can be built in to the system.

Ultimately, stigma and ease of use criticisms are sideshows in a situation where conditions and responsibilities need to be outlined and complied with.  The greater good achieved is that children have food, soap and other essentials bought for them and taxpayers’ money is directed to those who need it.

Added to other reforms, in particular the new conditions for unemployment benefit and reducing the overall benefit cap further, this is a major step in the right direction. 

I’ve long supported benefit claimants having to do some ‘work for the dole’ and always thought the £26,000 cap was way too much, as is the proposed level of £23,000.  Many working households have to get by on less than that, why should those out of work be able to claim more?
Welfare reform is supported by the vast majority of the British public and even a majority of Labour supporters agree that benefits are too generous.

The Government’s much needed welfare reform is creating a fairer system, making work more attractive and, at the same time, is reducing the national deficit.  How can you argue against that?

Monday, 26 May 2014

Barnet bucks the trend

We like to buck the trend in this borough and last week we did just that.  Barnet is still blue, just.  The trend of Labour making a number of council gains across London did not extend this far, fortunately.

Labour were a couple of seats away from gaining control of Barnet but by my calculations we won significantly more votes across the borough as a whole.  In East Barnet, Brunswick Park, Hale and West Hendon, Labour's victories were by small margins.  For me, the scale of defeat is as important to analyse as defeat itself.  

For Labour to be confident of winning the general election, they should have won the above wards by much larger margins than they did.  These wins do not suggest to me that the voters concerned are wholly enthusiastic about Labour, which four years in to a Conservative-led government is not good news for them.  Conservative losses are not good news for us either.   However, there were positive results in addition to the fact we retained control.  We won two seats in Childs Hill for the first time in a generation and came just nine votes from winning all three.  In Mill Hill, we retained recently won seats with a convincing majority. 

That said, both parties will now be trying to work out what happened and formulate a strategy for the future. In so doing, it would be a big mistake to try and guess crude 'reasons' behind the result and base future strategy around them.

Voter motivation and election results are always difficult to interpret as any student of psephology or rational choice theory will know.  How many people voted on local issues?  How many used the ballot to send a message to the Government but will come back to us in a general election?  Of those who did, what was the message they wanted to send?  How many were primarily interested in the European debate given the coverage it has received?  How much did disproportionate turnout effect things?  Was it a case of one party simply being better at getting its support out than others?  Did Conservative supporters think their party would fare well and put more priority on their busy lives than voting (which is their democratic right)?  Did some Conservative supporting families go away on polling day to take an extended half term break as their schools were closed?  All of these things have an influence but the truth is nobody really knows.  

What we do know is that Local Government is going to have to make even more savings regardless of who is in Downing Street next year.  What we also know is that satisfaction with the council has increased significantly since 2010 and that the Conservatives have a record to be proud of in Barnet.  Yes, we have a majority of one but nonetheless we have been given a mandate to continue our good work.  

In continuing that work the council will need to talk with residents about the challenges ahead, the future of services and what is important to them.  The parties will be doing the same.  Perhaps then we may get an inkling of what happened in certain wards.  Over the next four years we will prove to residents who didn't vote for us this year that we have listened and are delivering for them a borough we can all be proud of.