Friday, June 25, 2010

Nailing the Coalition Lies

I'll be returning to the emerging true nature of Tuesday's Budget shortly - in the meantime I'm indebted to my friends at Liberal Demolition for this timely corrective on the record of the outgoing Labour Government.

Today George Osborne claimed that “having inherited from Labour the largest budget deficit in Europe bar Ireland, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has been forced to take drastic action”.

The reality is that as a result of the prudent early decisions of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown we entered the recession with the 2nd lowest level of debt of any of the G7 countries. One of Labour’s key decisions was to use the £20 billion plus windfall from the 3G auction (the mobile phone spectrum) for debt repayments.

The OECD figures for G7 countries for the calendar year 2009 give general government net financial liabilities as a percentage of GDP as:

Japan – 108.3%
Italy – 101.0%
United States – 58.2%
France – 50.6%
Germany – 48.3%
UK – 43.5%
Canada – 28.9%

The OECD figures for 2010 show that the UK’s general govt net financial liabilities as a percentage of GDP is 53.5. Lower than the Euro zone average of 59.5.

Other EU countries which have higher levels of debt are:

Italy – 104.1%
Greece – 97.8%
Belgium – 83.3%
Portugal – 64.3%
Hungary – 60.1%
France – 57.2%

Labour put the country on a steady footing to weather the recession. Because of this the budget deficit could have been reduced at a steady pace, without the risk to future growth and without the raid on the most vulnerable in our society. Instead The Coalition has opted to slash public services and hike up taxes in a direct attack on hard working families in this country.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On bombshells

Has there been a bigger U-turn than that performed by the LibDems on VAT?

I have to say that my private thinking was that the ConDems wouldn't dare hike VAT precisely because of the above shot from the General Election. Which either goes to show what a lousy political pundit I am, or the extent to which many of us continue to underestimate the LibDems sheer, brazen cheek.

In truth, the LibDems know that VAT, like all sales taxes, is regressive, and hits the poorest hardest. Introducing it in a single slug after Christmas will not only depress sales, but also push up inflation. Elsewhere...

*Child benefit, the universal benefit payout received by all families, will be frozen for three years.

*Tax credits, brought in by the previous government to help working families and people on low incomes, will be cut for households with a combined income of more than £40,000.

*Other changes to family-centred benefits will see the health and pregnancy grant abolished in 2011.

*The Sure Start maternity grant will be restricted to only the first-born child.

As always, my old mate Hopi Sen has done some spot-on reasearch amongst the budget pages - he's found that "the Office for Budgetary Responsibility projects lower growth, higher unemployment and higher inflation as a result of this budget. Yummy. It even states that it expects the output gap to be greater at the end of this It’s pretty rare for a government to come out and say that this is what it’s budget will do."

The real pain is yet to come, however, with the 25% reductions in departmental budgets. Believe me, if the reductions are anything like that in local government, services will be worse than decimated. And here's why:-

Education accounts for 40-45% of local spending. Yet the ConDems have said that education spending will be protected in the Comprehensive Spending Review. So that will leave councils trying to find a net 40-50% savings in the remaining (non-education) budget. And remember, some services rightly have to be protected by law (Social Services and the like). There is the real prospect that local services we have come to value, which are an intrinsic part of our everyday life, will disappear rapidly. Trust me - this isn't scaremongering.

We've always known that Tories have dreamt of hacking away at the State until there was little left. What no-one could have predicted was that it would be the LibDems - the cuddly, inoffensive slightly barking LibDems - who would be complicit in the deal.

Liberal Democrats - be warned. Labour will be coming after you to account for the havoc your Coalition is about to wreak on services that protect the weak and vulnerable. For the decision to allow public services to take the brunt of the pain rather than troubl;e the rich and ask them to shoulder their share of the burden. Whether you're a LibDem MP, a councillor or just a local candidate - expect to see the picture above on election literature time and time again. I hope you have some half-decent answers for the communities your Government is about to attack.

Tackling ASB - Update

PACT meetings, which bring the Police, the Council, other partners and of course the community togather, have been a great initiative by Durham Constabulary. We've given their Springfield, Whinfield and Haughton meetings our support as ward councillors. Indeed, I think I'm right in saying that Springfield PACT meetings are amongst the best attended anywhere in the Borough.

The last Springfield PACT agreed that one of its priorities for our local beat team would be dealing with anti-social behaviour problems in Wheeldale Close/Riverside Way, and also Hambleton Grove/Springfield Road. You may recall that we put out an ASB survey in Wheeldale Close/Riverside Way recently, which got a great response.

Residents in Hambleton Grove too have suffered from problems associated with the footpath which runs up to Springfield Road. We organised a site visit there with local householders and Street Scene to see what could be done about the litter and how deterrents to ASB could be developed (prickly bushes and the like).

Rather than leave the issue for three months until the next Springfield PACT, I was delighted that our local Police beat team agreed to join us for a street surgery last Thursday, covering both Hambleton Grove and Wheeldale Close. We got a great response in both streets, with lots of residents wanting to talk to our local beat manager PC Jeff Summerhill and PCSO Liz Harley.

There were some contrasting points made, but that's the nature of community politics. One person's lively behaviour can have a real impact on others' quality of life. After 2 hours of talking and listening, I think that everyone came away with a better understanding of the varying perspectives locally.

To ensure that there were some concrete results, the Police have subsequently met with the Council's ASB team, and put out a joint letter around Wheeldale Close tonight. The police are also looking at a restorative approach with young people, and how to get communication going with them too.

Tackling anti-social behaviour in our communities is never as easy as grabbing some easy headlines in the local paper - it's about the hard slog of listening to local people to identify exactly what the difficulties are, and then forging the relationships to deal with the issues collaboratively. I remain hugely impressed by the constructive attitude taken by Darlington Police across Haughton.

Sauce for the Gander

Budget Day today. And we have been promised austerity measures amidst the rumblings of doom by our new ConDem Coalition Government.

Specifically last night (via Radio 4) I learnt that Council Tax was going to be frozen. And this morning peeple who earn less than £10,000 are going to be taken out of the tax system altogether. Sometime.

I mention this because before Labour budgets, the Tories and LibDems useed to get very aerated that announcements, especially Budget measures, were being leaked to the press, rather than being heard by the House of Commons first. Tory MP's in particular would pronounce sonorously at the drop of a hat about this outrage to the "Mother of Parliaments". And now that ConDem bums are on seats, they comport themselves in exactly the same way. I had to smile.

The furious leaking, which is of course all about the management of expectations, was doubly ironic becuase the ConDems had used exactly this excuse to scupper an EU plan whereby Governments would have shared budget plans in advance of their public announcement. That seemed an entirely sensible bit of 'peer review' to me, which might have benefitted good decision-making around the Union. The Tories, who cannot agree to anything that comes out of the EU without major therapy, however, soon put a stop to the scheme.

Elsewhere, I thought there were more straws in the wind with the announcement yesterday that key NHS targets were being abandoned by the ConDems. No longer will patients have the right to be seen by a GP in 2 days, or in A&E within 4 hours.

So what's that all about. An infusion of localism, as the Tory Minister responsible was trying to make out? Or dropping key targets that will soon become undeliverable as the NHS is squeezed? I'll let you decide. Frankly, I don't know how LibDem MP's in particular can look themnselves in the mirror at the moment. As Andy Burnham correctly observed, it takes power away from patients, and hands it back to the administrators who think they know best.

This still feels like a period of "phoney war" which will begin to come to an end this afternoon with the Budget, and then will be exploded with the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review in the Autumn. That's when Tory aspirations to slash the work of the public sector will be realised, under the pretext of defecit reduction. Believe me, it will a very miserable period indeed.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gove snubs Darlington's BSF Delegation

For those of us who love consensus (and that includes most members of the public) Darlington's political parties have shown admirable restraint by agreeing to work together on the Borough's Building Schools for the Future bid.

Cllrs. Williams, Scott and Swainston, for Labour, the Tories and LibDems respectively, requested a meeting with the Minsiter to press Darlington's case for the much-needed investment.

The stakes are high - £42 million high, to be precise, the cost of remodelling the outdated Branksome, Hurworth and Longfield schools.

The first fruit of the spirit of co-operation has received a dusty answer from the Coalition, however. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, has said that he is just too busy to bother himself with this at the moment. Well, ok, what a civil servant wrote was "unfortunately, owing to pressures on his diary, the Secretary of State is unable to meet with you at present." But you get the idea.

It's a shame, because it's good to see the local political establishment, in the shape of the 3 parties, together with schools, parents and pupils working together to a shared objective.

Elsewhere, more evidence has emerged of the Coalition's antipathy to the North East in the recently announced cuts to education spending. ANEC (the Asssociation of North East Councils) states that the Department for Education’s grant reduction to local government is to be taken from the Area Based Grant (ABG) in 2010/11, which amounts to £311 million.

The proposed cut to the ABG by a standard percentage of 24% will amount to a reduction of £19.982 million in the North East, which equates to £39.14 per child, compared with an England average of £28.92 per child - a reduction of over £10 per child more and an extra £5.2 million across the region.

Reacting to the announcement Cllr Paul Watson, Chair of the Association of North East Councils, said: “Such reductions and disparities in funding appear to run counter to the Coalition Government’s commitment to fairness, the need to address and eradicate child poverty across the country and measures aimed at reducing regional disparities. We are, therefore, concerned that the level of in-year reductions being proposed will place an even greater burden on children in areas facing higher levels of deprivation.

“We all recognise the need for the Government to make efficiency savings in the national interest and are willing to work in partnership with Government to achieve these. What we must avoid, however, is spending reductions having a disproportionate impact on this area of the country. All councils in the North East will have difficulties in achieving the level of in-year reductions we now face, which will have a significant impact on service delivery."

Indeed. The Northern Echo's headline about Cameron targetting the North East for 'special treatment' before the election is now looking particularly prescient.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Building Darlington's Future

Facebook is assuming an increasingly important role in community politics. Now a great new site has been created, spearheaded by our local MPs Jenny Chapman and Phil Wilson, pushing for the rebuilding of Branksome, Hurworth and Longfield Schools to be honoured by the Coalition Government.

There's also a petition too - if thousands sign, maybe that will help shift opinion down at Westminster.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

It Starts

Remember the LibDem statements before the election that an early slashing of public expenditure might hurt the recovery?

Hollow promises, and local authorities, with Fire and Rescue and Police Authorities, are now digesting the first of what I guess will be several raids on community services.

There will be £1.2 billion of cuts to local government this year alone.

In Darlington, £2.5 million is being stripped from the local authority. This amounts to the following;

Education: £756,000
Supporting People: £114,000
Road safety £43,000
Home office £16,000
Total £929,000

In addition, the Council, together with its partners in health, the emergency services and the voluntary sector, had been awarded £1,800,000 by the last Government for good performance - this money would have been invested in further service improvement. That has been cancelled by the Coalition.

The people of Darlington are also losing £380,000 in transport capital cash.

The cuts aren't ring-fenced - in other words savings could be made in other areas to make up for the shortfalls in cash - but the priorities of the Coalition are clear. Education, roads and services for vulnerable adults are all under attack.

There is an urgent need for social housing across the country - the Housing budget nationally is losing £146 million. It's not yet clear what the effect here in Darlington will be.

It's too early to say what the impact on services here in Darlington will be, and the Council and partners will have to crunch through the figures.

I haven't been blogging regularly for a couple of weeks, and for the most part have been sitting open-mouthed at the brazen affrontery of some of the statements coming out of the new Government. For all their posturing, this is most certainly going to be the most cycnical and value-free Government this country has experienced since the mid-Victorian era.

Making hurried cuts mid-year is always hard - the absence of detailed planning means that these cuts can bite hardest. Residents can be sure that whatever the LibDem/Tory coalition may decree from Westminster, Labour locally will do everything it can to protect the services residents value most.