Friday 8 February 2013

'Carry on cutting' (and charge more for less)

Brent Council Leader Muhammed Butt, last night rejected making a needs based budget and drew back from committing himself to a united campaign with residents and other London councils against the Coalition Government's savage reduction in local government funding. He said that action through the organisation London Councils was not possible because some were Conservative or Liberal Democrat controlled.

Challenged on setting a deficit budget or refusing to make a budget he asked Fiona Ledden, Director of Legal and Procurement to answer, despite a cry of, 'We want a political answer - not a legal answer!'

Stung into a response he said, 'Councillors are elected to do a job. I'm not going to stand here and say I am not going to do my job (Cries of, 'You are doing the Tories' job!')  I've written lots of letters, I've told people. They're not doing this just to our borough. We still need to provide services.'

He had told the meeting that the situation facing the borough in 2014-5 was dire with £20m cuts required which could mean not providing services  such as youth centres, parks maintenance, street cleaning, employment support, arts funding and voluntary sector support.

His future strategy seemed to accept this as inevitable. He said that extracting extra money from the government was unlikely and apart from so-called efficiency savings the alternatives he offered were of allowing local authorities more freedom over tax and revenue (putting up the Council Tax, increasing charges and charging for services that up to now have been 'free') and removing statutory obligations to provide some services (ceasing to provide all but core services).  It didn't escape the audience that all this meant residents paying in one way or another.

He said that he had charged Interim Chief Executive Christine Gilbert with the task of investigating the future form that Brent Council could take including a 'Fair Council' and a Lambeth style Cooperative Council LINK   Admitting that he had been pushed into these public meetings after being reminded at a Brent Connects meeting that he hadn't yet consulted on the 2013-14 budget, he promised a 'community budget' next year.  The consultation would be over a longer period and it would mean him going out to local areas, schools, voluntary organisations and residents' groups to ascertain their views, rather than expecting them to come to him.

He said, 'I will listen to you but sometimes I may have to take decisions which are not palatable to you, not to your taste. That is leadership.'

Earlier members and trustees of Elders' Voice had told the meeting how another organisation had been awarded their contract after putting in a 'cheaper bid'. Despite Brent's promotion of the London Living Wage this organisation, unlike Elders Voice, did not pay it. They predicted that because of  staffing transfer costs, there would be eventually no difference in price but Brent would have lost the experience, expertise and community involvement of Elders' Voice.

As the meeting drew to a close one of  the Elders' Voice contingent stood up and addressed Muhammed Butt directly: 'I have been listening to you but where's your passion? I can't hear your passion. You need passion to lead people!'.

Butt replied, 'Passion is difficult isn't it?  I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't care.'

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