- April 2018
Bear with me: I’m going to mention three words which strike terror into a lot of
Councillors but which induce complete boredom for most people. Those three words
are Local Government Reorganisation. It’s the ultimate page-turner, but not in a
good way. With councils at all levels struggling to meet growing demands with
reducing income and council tax-payers constantly asking themselves, “Which
Council does what?” and, perhaps all the more pertinently now, “Why am I paying
two (or three) lots of council tax?”, it’s high time we talked openly and honestly about
Governments are hesitant to start the discussions as councillors are their troops on
the ground and they don’t want to upset them. For councils themselves, turkeys are
unwilling to call for an early Christmas. So we’re stuck; stuck with two and more
likely three councils, each with their own administration costs, doing different things
and – too often – pulling in different directions. The County Council and the eight
District and Borough Councils in Staffordshire each have their own Chief Executives,
Chief Finance Officers, Officers leading the different services and, of course, their
own civic offices. That’s as well as the local parish councils which each have their
own running costs. Is this really sustainable any more? It’s fair to say that a lot of
councils look to share costs by joining up services, particularly back office ones, and
have done for a long time. But progress towards a one-stop unitary model is not just
slow; it’s glacial.
In other parts of the country, councils have reorganised, reduced the number of
councils and therefore saved shedloads of money to put into services for their
residents. The Secretary of State has pretty much agreed to these proposals as
they’ve come forward. It’s a no-brainer. We’ve got to focus on improving outcomes
for the residents we represent, on what is important to them rather than self-
preservation. Would the sky fall in if we lost one complete tier of councils? Not at all.
It certainly isn’t a favourite topic of conversation anywhere but it’s a conversation that
needs to be had.
- March 2018
Staffordshire County Council, like all local authorities across the country, has been faced with swingeing budget cuts from central Government, all in the name of austerity. This budget-making round has been challenging – a euphemism, if ever there was one, for nigh on impossible. Other sources of funding for councils such as retaining all business rates raised within their boundaries or payments for each now house built via New Homes Bonus are still not fully developed. The Government is deaf to all this. That leaves the County Council leaders, like others, scratching their heads about how to balance their books over the next few years especially as demand on services rises. It also leaves them with little option but to raise council tax for residents to the maximum level allowed (or almost the maximum: no-one is really fooled by the 0.05% below the limit any more than we’re fooled that £5.99 is a far better bargain that 6 quid). Therefore, the Conservative administration at the County Council voted through a 5.95% increase this week which Labour councillors opposed.We opposed the increase, not because we don’t value public services and public servants, not because we don’t welcome the commitment to ensure that vulnerable adults and children will be a priority, not even specifically because the budget was based on an assumption of 0% inflation but because the transfer of the tax burden from national to local taxes is unfair, unsustainable and takes no account of ability to pay. I described the budget as fragile, risky and vague. The words “fragile” and “risky” were echoed by two senior Conservative members. It’s vague on where further cuts will fall. Words like “review ”, “reorganisation”, “renegotiation” are supposed to realise savings but there is no detail about how – or the impacts on the residents of Staffordshire. The devil is always in the detail.
And what about the much-vaunted extra £5million to repair potholes? That would be fine if it wasn’t based on a cut of well over half in next year’s Highways budget, from £52million to £22million. Tomorrow, it seems, will have to look after itself.
- February 2018
On the day that the report on Sexism in Parliament has been published, I’ve been spurred on to push for more visibility of this issue at both Lichfield District and Staffordshire County Councils. It certainly exists. It drives me mad. Here’s just one example: as Opposition Leader, I’d had a go at a Committee Chairman that he wasn’t doing his job properly and that he should be doing more than simply chairing the periodic meetings; in effect, that he should do a lot more work between meetings to actually earn the extra cash he gets in allowances for the privilege. He couldn’t answer my question and was completely flustered in the public arena of the Council meeting but came up to me afterwards, smiley smiley and wagging his finger in a mock telling off, and said, “You little minx.” I was nearly apoplectic. Not only was he showing contempt for the Labour Opposition view, he expressed it in appallingly sexist language. I gave him an appropriate response. And it’s not just Tories. When I became Leader of the Staffs County Labour Group, two women put themselves forward as Deputy Leader. Oh my goodness. The reaction from some of the blokes, the Labour blokes! “We can’t possibly have a woman Leader AND Deputy.” Strange that they had never raised any concerns about having male Leaders and Deputies for the aeons before.I’m also keen to raise awareness though of the sexism in the Party and it was good to get unanimous support for challenging sexism in the Party from all members at a recent CLP meeting. But is it translating into any real impact? Do we all do enough, male and female comrades, to call out sexism? Is sexist “banter” outed in Branch meetings or more widely among members? Sadly, I don’t think so.
As Party members, we all believe in equality, don’t we? As Party members, we’d all challenge racist or homophobic comments, wouldn’t we? We will do all we can to support people with disabilities, won’t we? But do we do enough to challenge sexism or, indeed, its ugly sister ageism? Sadly, I don’t think so. Yet.
- January 2018
For anyone involved in Council finance, this is a pretty frenetic period as Councils prepare their budgets for the next financial year starting in April. In the run-up to Christmas, we wait with bated breath to find out from Government how much – or, more frequently, how little – support Councils are going to get and, it’s fair to say, there are usually some positives among the negatives. However, when the negatives keep outweighing the positives, it’s clear that more cuts to council services are on their way. That’s been the case for too long now under the banner of Austerity as councils’ funding from central Government is cut year on year on year with more to come. We ain’t seen nothing yet.I’ve heard it said several times now by leading councillors that people don’t like paying taxes but I challenge this assumption. We certainly need to bust the myth that you can have good public services without paying for them. Just look at what’s happening in the NHS now. From my perspective, national taxation based on income is the glue that binds society together. It’s a mutual insurance cover that means services such as health or social care are there when we need them and we can be thankful for our good fortune if we don’t. “From each according to his (or her, I might add) ability, to each according to his (or her) need.”As funding from national taxes is taken away from councils, councils have again been given the opportunity to raise council tax by a bit more. But this is the most regressive and unfair form of taxation as it’s based on the value of your home rather than your income. On top of that, we are being asked to pay directly for more and more services that we have previously paid for through tax and it’s those least able to afford it who are hit hardest. As someone has just said to me in relation to a further round of impending cuts to library funding, “Here we go again. Pay more, get less and blame the old”.
- October 2017
What’s the biggest challenge facing our country, and our County, today? Given the potential impacts on all of our lives, I suspect that many people would say Brexit. Others would perhaps refer to housing, terrorism, climate change, education or something else – or all of the above.For me, the biggest issue is demographic change which has seen life expectancy rise since 1950 from around 67 years to almost 82. These are just averages, of course, and we all know people who are well into their 90s or have passed their century. This is the good news and testament to the success of advances in heakth care particularly. However, the bad news is that more people are spending their late life in poor health, disability, mental and physical frailty.We all look to healthy old age contentedly watching our children and grandchildren flourish – like in the Werther’s Originals advert. It’s much more uncomfortable to think about impairment, immobility, incontinence and increased dependency on social care for older relatives, let alone for ourselves.The County Council spends 70% of its annual budget on around 2% of its residents, the most vulnerable and needing care including the frail elderly. To manage its budget, the Council recently changed its contracts with home care providers. On the face of it, this helps to balance the books but the changes are causing a great deal of anxiety for some home care users and their families. It’s also bringing job uncertainty for hard-pressed care-workers. Unless we are directly affected, we don’t see these problems, unlike roads needing repair or libraries reducing services or charges increasing as well as council tax.
The Council has recently been congratulating itself on “spending a record £300 million” on “providing three million hours of quality care.” Do the math, as they say. Is this enough? Will it ensure quality? Really? There have been calls over many years for a national debate on the costs of elderly care but it’s now becoming critical. Honest discussions about the sort of care we want for older citizens and for ourselves and how we pay for it is long overdue.
- September 2017
There’s been one thread to numerous conversations I’ve had recently with residents, community groups, council officers and others: transport. While Government and County Council leaders are engaged with big infrastructure projects like HS2 or trunk road improvements, the current consultation on bus subsidies is in danger of slipping under the radar. (Why do such consultations always seem to happen at holiday time, I wonder.)Whether it’s accessing leisure and employment opportunities for young people or enabling older people to remain independent by getting to shops or social groups, they need buses.For many, the loss of bus services will be cutting their lifelines. There doesn’t seem to be nearly enough joined up thinking or any real understanding of the impacts of losing bus services on those very groups of people where demand on public resources is increasing, the biggest headache for councils. If people can’t get to work, health appointments, community activities, to visit friends and family, they become all the more prone to health problems. In the end, this can lead to even more demand on public services. A vicious circle.Take loneliness, for example. Research shows that it can have as bad an impact on health as obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol intake or substance abuse. Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 26%. It also increases demand on social care services.
People tell me that getting on a bus and chatting to other passengers is an important part of their weekly routine. Apart from getting people from A to B, the bus services in themselves provide social interaction and can therefore improve an individual’s sense of wellbeing. One resident said to me, “It’s usually the same people on the bus I catch. We’ve got to know each other and look out for each other. We have a really good natter on the way and I look forward to my trip.” How much better to promote independence than dependence.You may, like me, be so used to getting where you want to by car that you rarely think about bus services. Please think again, not least as a tax-payer, and have your say on this important issue.