Wednesday, 23 February 2011

H&F Council cuts voted through - £27million+ gone

Vast quantities of testosterone sloshed around the Town Hall Council chamber this evening as the rough and tumble between Labour Leader Stephen Cowan and Council Leader Stephen Greenhalgh threatened to descend into a schoolboy playground scrap - “I challenge you to debate me publicly” shouted Cllr Cowan, “name a time and place!” retorted Cllr Greenhalgh, and then “with your grasp of facts, any time and any place!” the big beast roared.

But this evening was a serious occasion, in fact everyone in the room knew that it would profoundly change many people's lives in the borough. In some cases enormously, and much of the debate was heard, to give each side their credit, in respectful silence where children and vubnerable people were discussed.

The budget was passed by a majority vote that was a foregone conclusion this evening, resulting in millions being taken off the council budget and numerous services either being closed completely or radically reduced. There was much talk of “restructuring” and savings from the Conservatives but the fact is people will now lose their jobs and services be the poorer. In fact by my tally the Council has cut by 15% which is more than the central Government cut of 11.3%.

In fairness the Council could hardly have done anything other than cut, given the state of the nation's bank account. A point which Cllr Greenhalgh openned with as he stated that central government was paying more on interest rates than on national defence. And that's where most of the cash for local government comes from.

Councillor Greenhalgh claimed that they were not taking an “axe” to services, as I claimed here, but that it was a “scalpel instead”, which was a neat metaphor. Sitting in the middle of the chamber in the press seats I seemed to get a special glare when he said that, but perhaps that's just me. But he then went on to say that this was going to cost 330 posts, so he wasn't disguising the pain.

He referred to the cuts to Sure Start in the borough as a “big, bold and brave move” which would “restructure” services while “protecting the front line”. This provoked the first of the evenings regular barracking from the public gallery and guests sitting on the floor of the chamber that was to characterise much of the night. Cllr Greenhalgh lauded the budget as being “the three Rs of local government – Releasing assets, Restructuring services and Reforming delivery of those services”. The 'releasing assets' bit was a reference to the sale of Council buildings which I covered here back in July.

He claimed it wasn't ideology driving the cuts, which was the claim from the Labour benches opposing the budget, but plain old “common sense”. This was met with more barracking.

He concluded, with chutzpah that only he could muster, with a quote about Hammersmith & Fulham that said “I've often wondered what David Cameron means by the Big Society – but if this is it I'd like to see more of it”.

Councillor Cowan, for the Opposition, doesn't really do chutzpah, but he does do passion. He jabbed his finger and derided the claim that these cuts, which would see he said children's protection being placed at risk because of cuts to vital child protection services, was nothing to do with ideology. He quoted an economist who'd described the national Government's cuts as being a “sledgehammer to local government” and asked the Conservative benches “where were you when the sledgehammer was being wielded?” “where were you?” “on the sidelines clapping and cheering” he said pointing out that the cuts being made by H&F Council were actually even more than the Tories were imposing nationally.

He made the charge of incompetence on the selling of council buildings at what he said were historic low market rates and noted that figures claiming massive profits of £20 million that were projected to be made by the sales had mysteriously disappeared from the Council website after he'd challenged them on the BBC Politics Show recently.

But he reserved some of his fiercest criticism for the amount of money the Council spent on what he termed “propaganda” - specifically H&F News which the Government recently forced the Council to close down. “You are an administration driven by propaganda” he charged as he noted that £20,000 had been spent on an information campaign warning of a “super sewer stink pit” appearing in Furnival Gardens, which was later found not to be true.

He added up the sums he claimed they were spending on H&F News and their new plans to buy space in a local newspaper for “advertorials (ie more propaganda) and then multiplied them by the vast amounts he said they were spending on consultants and said they could have kept front line services open instead – but that, he said, wasn't their priority.

There followed a vote and cries of “shame” and “disgrace” from the crowd, before one disabled woman was escorted from the building by security for having shouted one too many times for the numerous beefy security guards liking. But I have to say the whole affair left me cold – it was a foregone conclusion beforehand and nothing happened in that room that changed anything. The decisions were made and all that was left was for bluster on both sides.

So what does it mean for us, the non politicos of the borough? Outside, before the meeting, I spoke to Sophia Jones, who has two infants at the Cathnor Park Centre which is set to be hit by the cuts to Sure Start. She said the Council's mantra that a new “hub and spoke” operation relacing the current level of equal service across 15 sites for early years children was meaningless since the “spokes” had no free places for her children to go to. That meant they now had nowhere to go, she said. And she was very worried about that indeed.

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