I reproduce below Brent Friends of the Earth's comprehensive response to the current Budget Consultation. I am sure that similar responses could be written on other areas of the proposed cuts making it clear that the level of cuts now required is unacceptable and making no long-term economic or social sense.
Response to Brent Council Budget Consultation from Brent Friends of the Earth
Our members are concerned about the cuts to Council services overall, in particular cuts to vital front line services. Whilst we recognise that Brent's income has been severely reduced, we do not wish to see vital welfare services axed, especially those for children. The vision of what will remain is stark and in some cases unrecognisable from the provision residents have come to know and expect as Council services. However our comments as a group focus on the impact of proposed cuts to environmental services. We also question whether some of the cuts proposed will actually save money in the long run:
1. ENS1 Deletion of Environmental Projects and Policy team, with only carbon tax work continuing.
-We strongly disagree with this proposal. This will leave only two junior staff in post, from a team of four, with no overall manager. Work will be limited to counting the Council's own emissions as statutory obliged. We are particularly concerned that there will be no community engagement about sustainability and climate change. This will leave no scope for future partnership and community work since there will be no one for residents or community groups to liaise with. There will be no community work on sustainability and no resources for climate change mitigation in Brent. These are major gaps.
-Work on Brent's Climate Change Strategy, which the Council spent £40k on the launch alone, with little tangible outcome since, will now be lost. What is the Council's commitment to pursuing a climate change agenda? Having spent many years involved working together with the Council on the development and implementation of Brent's Climate Change strategy, our members are deeply concerned that this work will effectively cease to continue. Brent was one of the first Local Authorities to develop such a strategy. Moreover since Brent signed up to the Nottingham Declaration on Climate Change, later known as Climate Local, surely it has an obligation to continue to maintain this work?
-The loss of staff not only means the loss of much good work on sustainability, but loss of expertise, local knowledge and continuity of engagement with the public.
-There will be no officers responsible for the Green Charter. How can it be implemented and revised in future?
-We have also lost the Brent Sustainability Forum – a Council, voluntary sector and community partnership to promote sustainability. Can the Council support such work in future? Engagement with the voluntary sector and communities taps into wider resources on a range of issues encompassing sustainability, waste and recycling, energy etc. with various groups in the Borough.
-A Council Officer who has left the Environmental Projects and Policy team has recently won a case against unfair dismissal. She now has no role to return to. Where does that leave her and the work she was doing?
-The future of Brent's Fairtrade status is unclear. What commitment does Brent have to continue this?
2. ENS4 Environmental Projects and Policy – closure of Welsh Harp Education Centre
- The Welsh Harp Education Centre is a unique and well-used resource within Brent which cannot easily be replaced. The specialist teaching facilities at the centre offer a fantastic service to our schoolchildren to inspire and educate them about nature. It would be a very great loss to the Borough and its young residents should it close.
-Such work is particularly important for children growing up in urban areas such as Brent, where they may not readily get the opportunity to access natural environments. The experience of being in nature is proven to enhance health and well-being. With children leading increasingly sedentary and indoor lives, it is important for them to access this service and not be deprived of the benefits it brings. Encouraging children to develop a love of nature and being active outdoors could reduce demand on health services for obesity and mental health, with resultant cost savings.
-Schools are already paying a fee for this service, which is currently oversubscribed. The savings to be made here are relatively minimal. The Centre offers excellent value for money. We urge the Council to look again at how the Centre can continue this important work by reinstating funding, part-funding, or by helping it seek alternative finances. Can Careys who currently pay some of the teaching costs be persuaded to make up the shortfall? How about inviting a community partnership to run the Centre?
3. ENS5 and R&G24 Cease grant to Energy Solutions
-Energy Solutions plays an unique and important role advising residents, landlords, schools and businesses how to reduce fuel bills. This reduces Brent's carbon footprint and helps combat climate change.
-Many Brent residents are living in cold or poorly insulated homes and experiencing fuel poverty. They will not have anywhere else to go for advice. The loss of this service will have significant costs to health and social welfare of these residents which will be more costly to the Council in the long run. The cost savings here are small and do not justify the loss of this valuable service. It makes no sense economically, or morally, to let it close.
-Given proposed cuts to the Environment Team (ENS1) the loss of this service will leave a big gap in the Council's capacity to drive an energy efficiency agenda as part of sustainability policy.
4. ENS16 Replacing existing street lighting with LEDs.
-We welcome this move and the carbon and cost savings it will bring. This is the one example of where the Council is investing wisely to reduce future costs.
-Can Brent invest wisely in renewable technologies such as solar PV to take advantage of the Feed in Tariff elsewhere on its building stock? This would save energy costs and give a guaranteed income with approximately 8% interest on investments.
5. ENS11 Reduce the Emergency Planning Team by one post – likely to require arrangement with another borough to maintain 24/7 coverage
-Given the team has only two posts, this represents a significant loss. This comes at a time when climate change predictions point to more extreme weather events. This means that increased resources for emergency preparedness are needed, not less. Can the Council assure that staffing is adequate for these challenges? Do cost savings for one staff member justify potential increased costs in dealing with consequences of this loss?
6. ENS26 Reduce street cleaning services with no litter clearing in residential roads, no pavement mechanical sweepers and no weekend litter service in parks.
-The withdrawal of litter clearance in residential roads is particularly abhorrent. This, along with waste collection, is one of the key areas residents associate with Council provision. Its absence will be immediately visible and blight neighbourhoods. It in turn will encourage more fly-tipping, and has implications for public health – increased vermin etc. Surely the Council has a legal obligation to continue this service?
-Pavement mechanical sweepers also serve an extremely important role, sweeping litter, dust and leaves, and freeing drains. There could also be more flooding should this be withdrawn.
-Withdrawal of weekend litter services in parks is equally intolerable. As much as we would like people to put litter in bins, take it home, or ideally re-use containers and have zero waste, this is not a realistic prospect. Parks are readily blighted with litter especially at weekends when they are most heavily used and enjoyed by the public. This enjoyment will be readily curtailed should the service disappear. Increased litter in parks is also hazardous to wildlife.
-If dog waste bins are also not to be emptied at weekends, this represents a further hazard to residents, especially children, and wildlife.
7. ENS17 £50k less for street trees maintenance and re-procurement of the street tree contract from April 16.
-We are concerned about these cuts, in particular that corners will be cut to adequately maintain mature trees. In previous years we have noticed heavy pollarding to reduce leaf growth, presumably to save on street sweeping. However a healthy stock of well maintained mature street trees has an important role in mopping up pollution, carbon dioxide, and providing habitats for birds and other wildlife. We want to be assured that any future contract considers these aspects.
-As previously discussed with Officers we recommend that tree species such as willow, lime and horse chestnut, which provide a particularly rich source of pollen for bees, should be favoured when new trees are planted. We would also want to ensure that maintaining biodiversity is considered in any future contracts.
8. ENS12 Charging for garden waste
-We have commented previously that we do not agree with the £40 per annum charge being introduced. We were particularly concerned that there was no public consultation about this service change, and that so little discussion was afforded to it at Scrutiny Committee.
-The recent leaflets for households are poorly designed to highlight this change, and have been delivered much later than the original communications' timetable. Brent could use voluntary and community groups to communicate with and advise residents about waste and recycling. Schemes such as Brent's Green Zones scheme was a prime example of residents working in partnership with the Council to bring about a cost-saving and community-engaging project.
-Given the experiences of Councils such as Birmingham, which descended into chaos as a result of such charges, we question again the overall savings. If uptake of the scheme is poor, there will be more fly-tipping or contamination of grey bins with uncollected green waste. It also gives rise to disputes with neighbours – will the green bins have locks to secure them? If not what is being done to discourage people from dumping waste in neighbours' bins?
-Despite fees for green bins being reduced for those on a low income, the charge for compost bins has not been offered at a reduced rate. More imaginative schemes such as community composting have not been offered as we previously suggested.
9. ENS13 Waste & Recycling. Charging for bulky waste collection (with 50% less expected to be collected).
-Introducing a £15 charge for collecting any items, replacing a previously free service for a limited number of collections a year will discourage uptake of the service and lead to more fly-tipping. This is likely to be unpopular with residents and a blight on neighbourhoods. Brent could end up paying more to deal with more fly-tipping and not make savings here.
-Will Brent publicise services such as Freecycle, furniture re-use or other collection schemes, or the Restart project that repairs broken electronics as alternatives?
10. R&G9 Cease providing a landscaping team with deletion of 2 posts
-This will impact on good design of our public spaces with local expertise lost. Given flooding is becoming more of a risk in some areas, does the Council have the capacity to design out flood risk to these areas?
11. R&G40 Rough sleepers services will end. This will lead to increases in people sleeping rough.
-Given the current economic climate, high cost of renting and severe lack of affordable housing, homelessness is clearly on the increase. There are already a considerable number of rough sleepers in parks such as Gladstone park. The withdrawal of this service coupled with reduced litter service in parks will only make the situation worse. Instead of parks being pleasant recreational green spaces they will become litter strewn and spoilt, with encampments of destitute people with nowhere else to go.
-It is likely to discourage families' enjoyment of parks and public spaces as parents may not consider them safe to take their children or visit alone. This together with other cuts to youth services we find particularly disturbing. Women also may be deterred from using them, raising issues of equality.
In all this paints a depressing picture for Brent's commitment to the environment, sustainability and combating climate change. It is certainly not the “cleaner and greener” Brent that we were promised when the recent administration was elected. We question if many of the intended cost savings will in fact be realised, and what price Brent and its residents will pay for them in the future.
for Brent Friends of the Earth
31st January 2015