Saturday 12 November 2011

What should the council do about Coalition instigated cuts? The debate begins.

Today's Any Questions? with Labour Councillors and representatatives of Brent Fightback  was a lively affair.  Janice Long and Jim Moher (with Lesley Jone as a later substitute for Moher) appeared for Brent Labour Councillors and Pete Firmin and Sarah Cox for Fightback. Pete Firmin is chair of Brent TUC.

Janice Long said she was unwilling to refuse to implement cuts as someone else making them would be worse. Cllr Moher said that he was the only member of the Executive to make changes in proposals as the results of representations and had not implemented the proposed cuts to school crossing patrols. He said the Council had protected front-line services but had to exercise the 'judgement of Solomon' in deciding what to cut. In response to ex-Labour councillor Graham Durham, who called on the council to unite with other London Labour councils and refuse to implement the cuts, he said that the situation now was far more difficult than the 1980s when Durham had been a councillor.

Sarah Cox said the Coalition had no mandate for the cuts in the NHS and it was time to resist bad laws. She said the Council should have put together a 'needs budget' and taken it out to the people of Brent as a basis for a united campaign by the council, its workers, and the Brent public against the Coalition's policies. Pete Firmin said that Labour councillors hadn't taken up opportunities when they could have worked with local activists, such as attending the Fightback lobby of Sarah Teather, MP for Brent Central. He said other London Labour councils were backing the public sector strike on November 30th but no such backing had come from Brent Labour council. Labour's  deputy leader, Cllr Butt, had referred a caller who wanted to oppose the overnight closure of Central Middlesex A and E Department, to Brent Fightback. The council itself needed to get organised against such cuts.

Janice Long said with the council having to choose between closing libraries and enabling people to carry on living in their houses she had to say that having a house was more important.  Her statement was challenged as conflating local government cuts and the government's cap on housing benefit.

Questioned by Shahrar Ali, Brent and Harrow  Green Party candidate for the London Assembly, about the cost of the new Civic Centre, Janice Long said the cost to Brent residents was neutral and it would reduce the council's carbon footprint and provide more space. It would  pay for itself over 25 years.  Cllr Moher said that the cost of the interest on the £102m project would be a further £25m but the Civic Centre would save the council £4m a year compared with the current buildings. He admitted that it was a difficult project to justify in the current situation of cuts and recession.

Pete Firmin said the we needed transparency and honesty about the Civic Centre and that another connected issue was the concentration of services in Wembley rather than in the various localities of Brent.

Cllr  Moher said that he was right behind the November 30th strike as an individual but that the council itself wanted to see lower public sector pensions because of their cost.  He supported a pension based on 'career average' earnings rather than a 'final salary' scheme. He justified this on the basis of the immense burden on council tax papers of the pensions of high salaried senior officers but a member of the audience pointed out that this would also affect the low paid - the average salary based on 40 years service was much lower than one base don final salary.

In response to join the NUT and other unions at the Torch, Bridge Road, Wembley at 9.30am on November 30th, Janice said that she hadn't known about that, but the Brent Central Labour Party would be on the march.

There was a brief discussion about whether campaigners should stand an 'anti cuts' candidate in the forthcoming Wembley Central by-election. There were a variety of views on this and it will be discussed at a later Fightback meeting.

Earlier in the day there had been speeches from Chris Coates about the Brent SOS Libraries Campaign and its success in mobilising people, raising money and getting  high profile support form famous authors. Jeremy Taylor, President of Brent Teachers Association and NUT representative at Preston Manor High School, spoke about the impact of cuts on students at his school and how the changes in pensions would affect teachers. He expressed concern both for teachers and students if teachers were forced to go on teaching well into their 60s when the job required so much energy. He demonstrated that the changes in pension contribution represented a wage cut in real terms.

In a wide-ranging speech Kishan Parshotam, Chair of Brent Youth Parliament and a Brent UK Youth Parliament member said that the BYP was campaigning against negative stereotyping of youth and for their voice to heard. He said that they supported the reduction of the voting age to 16 so that politicians would have to listen to their concerns. The cuts in libraries would mean over-crowded study areas and poor ICT access for the most needy students, particularly in the south of Brent, who lacked those facilities at home.

He told the audience that in discussions 8 and 9 year old children were well able to talk about how cuts would affect them and should not be under-estimated.

As well as councillors, campaigners and residents, the meeting was attended by Dawn Butler, ex-Labour MP for South Brent, but she made no contribution during the open sessions. Cllr James Powney trotted past the venue just before the Assembly started but kept his head down and did not come in.

I think a valuable debate and perhaps even a dialogue was opened up during the day. Brent Fightback wants to involve a broader spectrum of people and this was a modest start. We now need to consider how to involve more people at a time when everyone is feeling hard-pressed and those most affected by the cuts are concentrating on day to day survival.

Shahrar Ali's take on the day is HERE

1 comment:

Shahrar Ali said...

I think it is important to note that the £4m annual "savings" figure oft quoted by Councillors and officers in order to justify the affordability of the new HQ is itself based on highly speculative assumptions, as revealed by a recent FOI request I made (received Aug 2011).

The figure is actually made up of two components:

1. Release of old buildings and "efficiency savings". "The average figure will vary each financial year as a result of a number of variables within the financial model, including assumptions around borrowing and the profile of construction costs. Based on these projections the Council’s officers and its advisors have assessed the average saving to be in the order of £2.85m per year over the first 25 years. The approach to a prudent risk adjustment used in the business case and included in this response has been discussed and agreed with the Council’s financial advisers for the Civic Centre Project." (Brent Council: FOI)

2. Income from rental of offices in new Civic Centre. "In the cases of both rental income from long term tenants at the Civic Centre, and from other short term commercial income it would be imprudent of me [Civic centre programme director] to release detailed figures to you at the current time as these are the subject of negotiations which may be prejudiced if they are in the public domain. I am happy to confirm that we have an overall assumption of £1.25m built into the plan for income from these sources which we consider to be prudent." (Brent Council: FOI)

When you add £2.85m + £1.25m = £4m and multiply by the lifetime of debt repayment (25 yrs), hey presto, you get £100m.

Unfortunately, even the assumptions on which these figures were based are prudent (I doubt it), this conveniently fails to factor in the interest of the loan - an additional £25m (Cllr Moher's figure).

But, hey presto, there's a catch-all that Brent often likes to invoke at this point: "efficiency savings", read more jobs cuts.

FOI request on-line: