Monday, 8 July 2013

Leigh Times- Comment

I have recently had one of my periodic opportunities to write a comment article for the Leigh Times. This was it:

 I make no apology for returning once again to the financial challenge which Southend in common with every other upper tier local authority continues to face whilst attempting to maintain and improve front line services. It is a daunting thought that by the time we reach April 2014, the end of my 7th year as Leader of the Council, we will have achieved yearly revenue savings totalling almost £61M to deliver a net annual budget which currently stands at just under £139M per annum. To put this in context if we were to reintroduce all this expenditure next April it would require a council tax increase of approximately 102%!

Initially these savings were required because the authority was being seriously underfunded by the government as a result of the undercount of our population in the 2001 census. However the emphasis then changed as we attempted to find economies to invest in services and drive improvements in performance. More recently local government has been at the forefront of the Government’s austerity measures with significant cuts to funding on a year by year basis. Recent announcements make clear that the situation is going to remain challenging over the next few years.

 It has been impossible to make such large savings without an effect. There have been significant numbers of redundancies of council staff linked with rationalisation and reorganisation of our services to ensure that we deliver as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. We have also fought a war on waste.

 However it is inevitable that a point is reached where there are no more savings or economies which can be delivered without obvious effect and difficult decisions have to be made which will affect those who rely on our services. This has become more obvious this year with the cancellation of the airshow, removal of black bag provision and extended consultations on the delivery of savings in areas such as libraries, children’s centres and care homes.

The situation would be difficult enough if we could guarantee some control and stability of our expenditure however the nature of many of our services makes this impossible. With a steadily ageing population the cost of supporting adult social care alone threatens to absorb an ever greater share of the funds available to us – it represents the greatest risk to the future financial survival of not just Southend but every higher tier authority across the country. In addition areas such as children’s services and road maintenance demand increased investment leaving at risk those services such as leisure and culture which to many of us represent the essence of what makes Southend a good place to live.

As an administration we are determined to champion proposals which whilst not without short term effect will help ensure that we have services which can expand and prosper when the economic upturn eventually arrives. This involves having an adult and joined up debate to identify what we as a community regard as our priorities, considering how we can generate revenue from other sources and how we can deliver services in perhaps a different and more economic way which still meet our collective expectations.

In particular there is a challenge for our opposition members. It is simply not good enough to sagely nod in agreement at the unavoidable need to deliver substantial savings but then oppose every proposal without making suggestions as to deliverable alternatives. To do so is not responsible opposition. Even worse is to encourage resident concern by exaggerating the effect of proposals. By way of example the current library consultation does not suggest the closure of any library in the west of the town, whether Leigh, Kent Elms or Westcliff. The cross party group which has been considering the future has focussed on how to protect and develop the library service going forward and has suggested that one library be a hub with the other two operating as community managed libraries within the formal library structure. This is a system which is operating successfully in many places across the country. All councillors know, or should know, what is being proposed and yet in his council comment in this paper a few editions ago Liberal Democrat Peter Wexham suggested that the future of Leigh library was at risk with the possibility of closure. He knows full well that this is not an option being considered. Similarly why is Leigh Town Council spending council tax payer money running a campaign to “Save Leigh Library”?

It is difficult enough for residents to come to terms with and contribute to the ongoing debate as to where and how savings should be made without those who should know better trying to distort the debate for reasons about which I can only speculate. I would encourage all residents who care about the future of library provision in the town to read the consultation and have your say but be reassured that with our new cutting edge central library opening at The Forum later this year this administration remains committed to a strong and town wide library service. In the meantime we will continue our efforts to deliver ongoing savings in a balanced, responsible and effective way.

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