Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Everest Challenge

Amidst the endless cut and thrust of Darlington politics, a clear theme has been running since 2010 - the challenge of meeting the horrendous cuts to the Local Authority budgets imposed by the Coalition, and the impact on services in the Borough.

The unfairness of how these cuts have been apportioned - with the North East and metropolitan areas suffering most - has been widely commented. For a small unitary authority like Darlington, however, the cuts are particularly tough. The Council has had to go back to the drawing board, and look at every single service it provides. With the so-called Statutory services (the ones the Council has to provide by law, such as Adult and Children's care) accounting for such a significant prpoprtion of DBC's budget, other provision, such as Street Scene, leisure and the arts inevitably have come under massive pressure.

So amidst the accusations and anguish as the Council has taken really tough decisions about the Arts Centre, or Street Scene, or indeed the Market toilets, it's easy to forget the global figures that are driving these decisions in the first place. So to set the context, here are some of the key statistics that explain not only whey the Council has cut so hard, but the enormity of the decisions to come...

(1) Since 2010 when the Coalition came into being the Council will have had its government funding reduced by £21.1m by 2015/16. This is a cash reduction which is equal to a real term reduction of £31.6m when inflation is taken into account, or 39%.

(2) By 2019/20 the reduction in grant is projected to be £29.2m in cash terms and £48.1m in real terms, a real term reduction of 54%.

(3) The real term loss of £31.6m by 2015/16 in significant in the context of DBC's anticipated net revenue budget for 2015/16 of £80.1m

(4) Due to the loss of government funding the Council has reduced annual spending by £25.6m between 2010 and 2014/15 and has plans to deliver a further £10.6m in savings by the end of 2016/17. Between 2016/17 and 2019/20 a further £10.341m of reductions will be necessary.

(5) Budget reductions have meant the loss of 564 posts, comprising of 198 compulsory redundancies, 224 voluntary redundancies and 142 deleted posts.

(6) Over 60% of the net budget is spent on social care.

Senior Management Costs

(a) In 2010 the Council had 24 Directors and Assistant Directors

(b) In 2014/15 DBC has 14 Directors and Assistant Directors, and has taken responsibility for Public Health during that period, representing a net reduction of 11, or 46%.

(c) Assistant Directors have had a pay freeze for 5 years, in 2014/15 they will receive a 1% rise.

(d) Directors and the Chief Executive have had a 6 year pay freeze up to 2014/15.

(e) Some Assistant Directors and Directors have had incremental progression within their grades during this period which is exactly the same as for all staff.

(f) Restructures of Senior Management have led to new amalgamated jobs being created so during the period some Assistant Directors as individuals may be paid more than 5 years ago because they have a new larger job.

(g) Over the 5 years since 2010 an estimated £2.7m has been taken out from the cost of management

Key DBC HR Facts

(a) Total Pay bill 2013/14- £48.5m
(b) Average salary 2013/14 - £23,885
(c) Number of employees (excluding schools) at March 2014 – 2,158
(d) Number of full-time staff (excluding schools) at March 2014 – 1,557
(e) Percentage reduction of full-time staff since 2010 – 33%
(f) Percentage of staff living in Darlington - 62%
(g) Senior management costs as a % of gross budget - 0.77%

I fully appreciate that it's difficult to understand why services are being remorselessly cut when Council Tax is going up, or why some big salaries at the top of the management tree get attention at a time of austerity. I hope these figures give a more complete picture.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Arts & Culture in Darlington - Fighting Austerity


To London today, to the Guildhall no less, to speak at the New Local Government Network’s conference on the arts in an era of austerity.

Clearly a lot has happened since my blog “took a break” in 2010, with Local Authority finances under enormous pressure from Government cuts. I’ll be blogging separately about how this works separately, but needless to say, arts and culture have taken a battering across the country.

Here in Darlington, we’ve had the very sad closure of the Arts Centre, but also the opening of The Bridge Centre for the Visual Arts, the successful Stage One bid for the Hullaballoon (which will be the only bespoke children’s theatre outside London), and a further bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the refurbishment of the Civic Theatre, where all our fingers and toes are crossed.

Why were Darlington representatives invited to speak at the conference? In effect, we find that we are are lab rats for the impact of austerity on local government. NGLN is a think-tank with some interesting, not to say provocative views on the future of local government. As its Director said succinctly today, Darlington as a small North East unitary authority is like “the canary in a mineshaft” – what happens to us today will signal the fate of mainstream local government in a few years time.

The arts in Darlington were one of the NLGN case studies in its booklet "On with the Show - Supporting Local Arts and Culture." I was delighted to be speaking alongside John Dean from Darlington for Culture. The case study identified how the two organisations – DBC and DfC - once bitterly opposed over the closure of the Arts Centre – are now working together to secure the best future for the arts in the Borough.

DBC no longer dominates the arts and culture in the town, nor seeks to. It is one crucial player amongst many committed to the cultural sector in the Borough.

The fall-out from the that excruciatingly difficult decision over the Arts Centre has barely abated – John and I joked about not being on each other’s Christmas card list – but as John explained, since then Darlington for Culture has made the decision to move from a campaigning organisation focused on one issue, to a group playing a much broader role, creating festivals and events, supporting artists and generating volunteers for the operation of the arts (whilst still being a "critical friend" of the Council).

Now Darlington for Culture sits alongside others including Teesside University, Darlington College, the Arts Council for England, the Northern Echo and Theatre Hullaballoo with the Council, as founder members of the Creative Darlington Board. It distributes the £100,000 of legacy Council funding each year towards supporting individual artists and their projects; and events such as the Festival of Thrift, which attracted 27.000 people to Lingfield Point last year.

Afterwards, it was good to chat to people from different parts of the country interested in how we're trying to make change for the better in Darlington in terrible financial times.

I ended my bit with the observation that whatever horrors face local government in the next 6 years – and make no mistake for some councils it will be an existential crisis – the changes we have made to arts and culture funding and organsiation will survive whatever the Government can throw at us. It is a durable legacy for the next 20 years +.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Kiwis are Coming to Darlo!


Some great news today that the Darlington Arena (the home of Darlington Mowden Park RFC) has been selected as a home base of one of the 2015 Rugby World Cup teams. And not just any old side - probably one of the most iconic teams in world sport - reigning World Champions the All Blacks!

This is a huge coup for the rugby club and the Borough. Having the All Blacks in town will give a real boost to the local economy, and raise profile nationally and internationally. I'm most excited about the endless possibilities we will have to encourage more people, young and old, into sport as the Kiwis roll in.

It says a great deal for the ambition and vision of Darlington Mowden Park that they have been successful in attracting one of the Blue Riband teams in world sport. It's a remarkable achievement for the club, which is the only grass-roots side in the country to be hosting one of the top flight teams.

I went along to the press conference today, and was told that when the scouts came from New Zealand, they took one look at the facilities on offer and were certain this is where they wanted to be.

It was telling that Debbie Jevons, the CEO of England Rugby 2015 was at the press conference to make the announcement. She even brought along the Webb Ellis Trophy, which you can see above.

It's also a tribute to Mike Crawshaw, Marion Ogle and the team at DBC who supported the club in making the bid. The Council will be working intensively between now and October 2015 to ensure that we fully realise the potential of the All Blacks' visit as a community.

Already, there's heady talk of having a crack in South Park at the Guinness Book of Records' "largest Haka', which was set in Ngaaruawaahia, Waikato, New Zealand in 2008 - 3,264 participants. Surely we can do better than that Darlo?!

Back in the Saddle


After the best part of 4 years away, I've decided to give this blog another spin round the block.

I reluctantly stopped in 2010 after a major rethink on priorities. Blogging was great fun, and led to lots of lively debates in the comments, as well as generating some news stories both local and national.

I wasn't clear however that I was getting 'bangs for my bucks' in terms of the time I was investing in Darlington Councillor. Specifically, it didn't get good readership amongst the people I was representing in Haughton West, which is after all why I'm in local politics in the first place. I decided to put all my efforts into my e-newsletter, which is now delivered to over 400 households in the ward.

Now feels a good time to give blogging another go, however. We're less than 9 months from 'meaning of life' local and national elections, whilst local government faces an existential crisis with further massive cuts on the cards if the Coalition is re-elected.

I intend to keep the blog unmoderated, so please play nicely! I expect a higher class of comment from you all than I read in the Echo story comments most days.

I will have to have a good clear-out of links to blogs that are no more too. As far as I'm aware, there's a dearth now of political bloggers in the North East, but if you know of any (from whichever party - I try to be ecumenical) do let me know. With Facebook and Twitter, is there any role now for blogging? I guess I'll just have to wait and see.