Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Cambridgeshire Budget Debate - Cllr Kilian Bourke Speech


Cllr Kilian Bourke
The following is the transcript of the speech given today by Cllr Kilian Bourke the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cambridgeshire County Council in relation to the Conservative Business Plan for 2013/2014 (aka the budget);

"Despite the very considerable variations in the Conservatives’ approach to the Council’s Business Plan over the last four years, this budget confirms that some things have stayed the same.

The administration has not lost its appetite for big, grand projects (especially ones that are made of concrete) but nor has it cured itself of its inability to deliver them well.
For all the headline-grabbing numbers in the capital column, the fact is that the Conservatives have messed up on their duty to provide basic council services to the public, and this budget does not change that.
And if there is one thing the public asks and expects of its Councils, it is for them to provide basic services well.
Having been in control of the council for too long, this administration has become wedded to the trappings of power—too attached to its grandiose surroundings to sell off the most inefficient building in the estate, when this could provide funds to protect services.
The Conservative Leader’s strange views on climate change are being imposed on half a million Cambridgeshire people.
And despite the fact that cutting funding to our ordinary bus service will make it harder for young people to get jobs, and for older people to be independent, the administration persists in making severe reductions to our bus service; while Cambridgeshire Future Transport, its aptly named replacement, seems doomed to only ever exist in the Future tense.
So there are some points of difference. 68 of them, if you’re counting.
However, there are also some points of agreement.
And I think it is important for a responsible opposition to set out those areas of consensus.
I hope something we can all agree on, is that these are tough times for local government.
***
We all knew that this was going to be the case, whatever happened.
In 2010, Alistair Darling, then the chancellor of the exchequer, said that if Labour were re-elected, they would cut “deeper and tougher” than Thatcher; and, as far as local government is concerned, the Coalition government has been as good as his word.
***
It would be a mistake, though, to compound the austerity being imposed on us from above with extra austerity locally.
Think about it. This year’s budget reduces funding for care packages for the elderly to the statutory minimum.
Just imagine what we would be looking at today if the administration had stuck to its plan two years ago, and maximised the cuts to services over and above what was required. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Back then, the Liberal Democrats said there was a better way. That we should protect the frontline services that people, including the vulnerable, rely on.
We have stuck to that position ever since, without variation. There has been no opportunistic support from this opposition for the shabby deal on offer from Eric Pickles and his mini-me Brandon Lewis, when oppositions up and down the country are clamouring to do exactly that in an election year, without admitting the true consequences of doing so.
We welcome the fact that the administration followed our lead and reversed this disastrous plan. Otherwise the funding situation for social care would be even worse.
Even now, it’s clear that delivering the savings in this area is going to be a big challenge – the unidentified savings from Year 2 make that clear. But, broadly speaking, we support the work taking place in this service area, and we trust that this council will speak with one voice to central government, making the case for funding reform.
***

It would be a cop-out for councillors, though, merely to wring their hands and blame everything on circumstances outside their control, as if the council’s political decisions did not affect its ability to provide services.
Because it is undeniably the case that bad local decisions have added to the Council’s current financial difficulties.
Most obviously, the Guided Busway project, proposed by the Conservatives and seconded by the then Labour group leader, has created a significant extra burden for the council, over and above those faced by other authorities.
At £64m, the borrowing for it would be enough to build 10 care homes.
And the interest payments on that borrowing are now costing this authority over £2m a year, which would be enough to stop the cuts being made to our bus service.
The budget consultation suggested that the people of this county support modest increases in council tax to protect services, but where, I ask, is the person who supports increasing council tax to offset the spiralling interest costs of the guided busway?
Cllr Clarke recently likened this organisation to a FTSE 250 company.
And, looking back over this mess, I see where he is coming from.
The Conservatives promised not to spend a penny of local taxpayers’ money on the busway;
then bailed it out with £64m of taxpayers’ money, and counting;
a majority of the Conservative group, possibly as a performance-related bonus, subsequently saw fit to try to award themselves a 25% pay rise;
and now the Conservatives plan to cut staff terms and conditions, starting with a pay cut for those notorious fat cats – the County’s music teachers.
People don’t want their representatives in local government to be imagining themselves to be running FTSE 250 companies, and acting as though they were.
***
But it’s not just the busway that is making life difficult for this council.
So are the savings that are not being made, because of the Conservatives’ skewed priorities.
Shire Hall is the least cost-efficient part of the council’s property portfolio. It is prime real estate. The ratio of desks to floorspace is not dissimilar to what you might have found in the Roman fort on top of Castle Mound several hundred years ago, with one archer in each turret; and although the view from the balcony in the members’ lounge is splendid, this building costs the council over £1m a year in rates and maintenance, at a time when revenue is like gold dust. So this wouldn’t be selling off the family silver.
This building is an unnecessary, luxurious trinket that we should sell off, in order to free up funds for frontline services. And it is disappointing that this is not included in the Business Plan.
The same goes for the Council’s property portfolio as a whole. We should be disposing of more of it more quickly.
Yet the constant message coming from the Conservatives is that “service transformation is the priority”, and that property is a “distraction”.
Both matter, and until the administration starts sending out that message, clearly, even the reductions in property anticipated in this budget will prove unachievable.
***
Being an effective council today is not only about making savings, however.
In this environment, councils also need to be revenue generating. I think that’s another thing that we can all agree on.
We’re not going to persuade the Conservatives today that global warming is real and man-made, but what has not been sufficiently acknowledged is the financial consequences of the council’s position, which is costing this council big.
Take a look at our neighbours in Peterborough. Cambridgeshire County Council is being left for dust by Peterborough City Council, which is investing in a massive solar farm that will bring in tens of millions of revenue to the council, aims to make the cost of electricity flatline for local people, and will massively reduce its dependency on carbon-based energy sources.
It is an embarrassment that in a world-beating centre of research and development in this area, the Conservatives are implementing policies that flatly contradict this work.
The economic consequences of these and other decisions are costing this council dear, and blighting its ability to deliver basic services well.
***
We can support many of the grand projects.
Especially those we campaigned for.
Chesterton station is a great project. And, as the Opposition, we will not have the pleasure of signing it off. But we have called for this project to happen for a lot longer than I can remember.
What I do remember, though, is Julian Huppert standing up in this room and asking the Conservatives why they weren’t getting on with the project, and it being dismissed as an “eccentric idea”. It’s funny how what was such an “eccentric idea” has suddenly become so blindingly obvious to everyone in just four years. But we are glad that it has.
What even Chesterton Station will not do, though, is provide even a minimal level of public transport provision across the County.
The current cuts to funding for our bus service will severely reduce what was already an inadequate level of transport for many, especially in rural areas.
This will make it harder for young people to get a job. It flies in the face of the preventative agenda, because it will make older people less independent. Cllr Clarke talks about keeping people at home. Well, this will keep people at home. That is not a good thing. And it will entrench rural isolation, which is one of the key causes of the health and economic inequalities in this county.
***
Beyond transport, though, what is it that we mean by basic services?
Residents across Cambridgeshrie pay their council tax and in return there are some basic things they should expect from a County Council. It should:
  • Provide decent schools in decent buildings
  • Ensure our streets are lit to an appropriate standard
  • Maintain our pavements, cycleways and roads to a decent standard
  • Dispose of the waste collected by the District Councils
  • Look after vulnerable people

Yet this Council is failing badly on all five. If it is to justify a council tax rise, it must get these basics right and at the moment this council isn’t.
Many of the council’s primary school buildings have been allowed to fall into an unacceptable state, which is demoralising for teachers and pupils, and will lower standards, not improve them.
The Council has made a complete pig’s ear of the replacement of the county’s streetlights:
Every single light installed in my ward has had to be removed and replaced.
In other wards, residents have been plunged into darkness.
Universally, the consultation with residents has been rubbish, because the Council signed yet another foolish contract.
Few things could be more basic than lighting our streets, yet this Council has made a mess of it of Olympian proportions.

It was thanks to Lib Dems on this side of the Chamber that the Council finally restored the budget for road and pavement repairs to a respectable level, after being cut year after year by the party opposite.
However, the long-term underfunding of this budget means that the extra funding will merely slow down, to a relatively small extent, the deterioration of our pavements and roads, instead of getting them in a safe state.
And now, with month after month of staff reorganisation, the council’s ability to deliver highways repairs of even the most basic kind seems to have ground to a complete halt.
Before this council got taken over by outdated 1980s-style macho business-speak, this meeting today would have discussed the integrated plan: the document which combined the description of what the council would actually do, with the figures and costings to back it up.
Now that we have a business plan, the reality of delivering services seems to have vanished and we are left with rhetoric and failure to deliver.
What are the people of Cambridgeshire to make of the wheel falling off the council’s recycling plant? Thousands of tons of waste going to landfill and members opposite not seeming to care.
And take a look at the cuts being proposed to adult mental health. These cuts will surely cost this council money in the future as preventative services are withdrawn and more costly remedies are required in years to come.
***
I don’t think people here have confidence in the Conservatives to deliver the level of basic services that they expect from the Council.
For all the grand gestures, this budget does not change that.
Bad local decisions have made what is a tough funding environment across local government even tougher on this authority.
Some mistakes that have been made cannot be corrected.
But others could be: this council could still make smart investments in renewables, it could dispose of Shire Hall and more of the estate, it could make more aggressive cuts to corporate waste.
In this way, even within the constraints of the current situation, better political leadership would allow this council to deliver better basic services.
And because this budget does not do that
Because it remains attached to the trappings of power
Buries its head in the sand on the environment
And does nothing to persuade us that the failure to provide basic services well will change any time soon
We cannot support it.
We will be tabling an amendment."