Monday, March 26, 2012

Birmingham Yardley - microcosm

Last Thursday, those of us who attended the Constituency Committee in Yardley were treated to lectures from two councillors, both up for election, on the dire financial situation of the country, the council and the constituency and how we needed not to bury our heads in the sand and how tough decisions need to be made. One councillor - failing the Economics 101 course - even returned to the hoary old myth that our financial situation in 2010 was leading us down the same route as Greece. That story is utter drivel - Greece had structural debt problems prior to the 2007 crash, with government borrowing north of 115% of GDP, so when the collapse in tax revenues came, they were unable to finance themselves. Prior to 2007, Britain actually had one of the lowest debt/GDP ratios - ironically greater than Ireland's, but less than the US, France or Germany. (HT to Flipchart Fairytales for the graph).

Indeed, in 2007, the UK national debt was lower than it was when Labour took office in 1997. And for most of the preceding 18 years, the Tories ran a higher annual deficit than Labour did from 1997-2007, with the Major years seeing deficits comparable to what happened after 2007.

It may be received wisdom that Labour wrecked government spending, but that doesn't make it objectively true. But when it comes to seeing what the Liberal Democrats have done in Yardley, they have used their wrecking ball quite thoroughly.

Yardley faces cuts of £999,000 (let's call it a million amongst friends) in 2012/13, with an additional amount to be cut to cover in year overspends in 2010/11 and 2011/12. The overspend for 2011/12 is currently £454,000, but those figures are from the end of Q3 in December - the committee can't even have the basic business functionality of up to date budgeting upon which it can take action - so we don't know where things will be at year end.

Despite the tough language from these councillors, they did not indicate a single area where 'savings' or 'efficiencies' or cuts would be made. Instead, they fell back on the Rapid Service Reviews that have been grinding on at a glacial speed for months. We even had a councillor trying to claim that the council as a whole will come in on budget, so some other department will have an underspend that will absorb any overspend in Yardley - an irresponsible view to even suggest.

The electorate in May will be expected to buy a pig in a poke - we will go to the polls without any clear plans to deal with the massive financial problems or any idea where the axe is likely to fall. This is indicative of behaviour across the council, where the politics of desperation has become the order of the day. In Yardley, however, the Liberal Democrats will be the ones who have to make the decisions, as even if Labour win all four seats this year, that will result in an equally divided committee. The council as a whole is a different kettle of fish.

This council knows that it is in deep electoral trouble, that on the 3rd May they are likely to hand over a broken authority, laden with debt, having taken full advantage of the ability to borrow granted to them by a Labour government and having had the benefit of several years of Labour government above-inflation grants. So when the Tories and the Liberal Democrats trumpet their successes over the past eight years, remember that it was thanks to powers and funding provided by a Labour government. Remember also that the current Liberal Democrat and Tory government has ripped £164 of council services away from each resident in Birmingham, but the leafy, Tory-friendly voters of Wokingham have suffered just £19 worth of cuts apiece. The big northern and Midlands cities - centres of highest need - have been hurt the most.

Despite this clear injustice - matched by cuts to the West Midlands Police service and West Midlands Fire Service - Sir Mike Whitby has remained silent about the damage being done to the city that he claims to lead. Give him something to open or a chance to grandstand at a conference and he'll be there, but ask him to justify the tough decisions promised by his cabinet member in Yardley and there is nothing except tumbleweed blowing down the leadership corridor in the Council House. Mike may well consider running for mayor, should the people will a change in May, but his performance as leader has shown a reluctance to stand up to power and challenge for a better deal for Birmingham - hardly qualification for power or leadership.

In desperation, the council has been pushing decisions further back, delaying those hard choices and burying its head in the sand with the clear aim of shoving the blame onto an incoming Labour administration. We know that there is a £40-50 million black hole at the heart of this budget, with cuts staved off for a year by a variety of one-off measures - the council tax freeze supported from central government, debt repayment delayed, funding from the NHS and spending from reserves. We know that the billions of council debt built up over the past eight years will have to be repaid. We don't know the full details of what awaits a Labour administration, but it will not be pleasant.

One thing we don't need is a lecture from the councillors who are letting the train crash happen.


john said...

So why did Stuart try to ensure that Library Hours were cut in Yardley?

First by trying to get the proposal to use community chest withdrawn and then by voting to cut the contribution from community chest?

PoliticalHackUK said...

Perhaps worth pointing out that John wasn't there, so is relying on a partial account from his acolytes.

That wasn't Cllr Stacey's intention - he wanted the AG ward committee to be able to decide the issue at the next meeting. The Chair admitted that there was no start date for the library changes, so there was no urgency to vote this money in now for Acocks Green. The documentation was incorrect, as at least two councillors had not been consulted on their views, contrary to statements made on the bid, so your contentment with cutting corners may be indicative of the reasons for the hole we are in.

Cllr Stacey was happy to consider a holding application to ensure opening for a two month period, but the rest of the Yardley councillors decided that democracy shouldn't apply in Acocks Green and overruled the Ward Committee.

In any case, the application for AG as submitted only guarantees opening for six months - just delaying the cut.

Where's the axe going to fall on the rest of the missing million? Let the voters know now.

john said...

That, however, is what he did.

In any event given that he knows that the Constituency Committee have allocated funds to ensure that Library Hours are not cut. Why are you delivering a leaflet saying that they are going to be cut?

PoliticalHackUK said...

The hours of Acocks Green library are protected for just six months and the cut will come into effect in October 2012.

All the Constituency Committee have done is kick the can down the road for six months and into the next administration - a blatantly cynical political move.

The other libraries had funding allocated for the full year ahead - that was not the case in Acocks Green.

At least this is one cut that the electorate will be fully aware of on May 3. We can't tell them about the £1 million that will need to be sliced from Yardley's budget in 2012/13 - because the constituency committee won't tell us.

john said...

We will have to agree to disagree on this.

The only way hours would have been cut is if Stewart had got his way.