Response to the Scorched Newcastle Budget 2

Response to the Scorched Newcastle Budget 2

We should state at the outset our concern about the political nature of this budget. Purporting to be about fair choices, this budget reads more like a party political broadcast and is anything but fair choices.

We understand that Newcastle City Council faces significant challenges as a result of the Government making more significant cuts in Newcastle’s grant than for councils elsewhere in the country. However, against this backdrop, some of the Labour administration’s choices are questionable and certainly not fair.

Questionable Choices

Successive Labour and Lib Dem administrations have made questionable decisions that have led us to where we are now. The impact of Single Status, the cost to get rid of two Chief Executives in just three years and the building of a mountain of debt are all choices made by one or both parties in recent years.

We understand the city’s debt mountain increased from £431million to £962million under seven years of Lib Dem rule, with interest payments costing the city £40million out of revenue budgets. Had Lib Dems not doubled our debt, would services have been protected?

Just weeks before launching its Scorched Newcastle Budget, Labour introduced a Living Wage for council employees. We understand the council is also looking to increase the cost of contracts with external organisations by insisting that commissioned services also pay the Living Wage.

We support the principle of a Living Wage but we believe this was not the year to take money out of council budgets.

In 2010, the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated that about half of any increase in pay will go directly to the Government in higher tax and national insurance revenues and lower tax credit and benefit payments. We find it incredible that Newcastle City Council would indirectly hand money back to the Government at a time when we are facing significant cuts in local services because of Government cuts.

We support reasonable amounts of union facility time, however, when facing job cuts of 1,300 council officers -a massive reduction in the workforce - Labour’s decision to protect union facility time suggests it is putting its donors ahead of the needs of Newcastle residents.

Scorched Newcastle Proposals

The Labour administration is proposing a number of significant cuts to services. It appears to an independent observer that the Labour administration has chosen to pick on the most emotive services to cut, leading to concerns that the budget has been deliberately politicised.

It is hard to have confidence in a document that contains a £900,000 error. How many other mistakes are there in the budget that ordinary people do not have enough information to spot?

As its name suggests, this budget is made up of choices, even though the rhetoric from the council suggests otherwise.

The decision to cut arts funding has been widely publicised and has captured the attention of celebrities and the press, we believe this is one of the least damaging cuts for local residents. Paying more for a night at the theatre may be inconvenient but it does not have a significant impact on the life chances of children or the most vulnerable.

We are concerned about the decision to close libraries serving wards with the lowest education attainment in the city and at the same time savage youth services, the play service and educational psychology. This, combined with the cuts to leisure centres and swimming pools, will have a massive impact on generations of young people.

We believe the introduction of fortnightly bin collections will create more rubbish in the street, an increase in fly tipping, smelly maggot-infested bins in summer and problems of build up of rubbish if bin wagons are not able to get through snow in winter. We hear the rhetoric of politician councillors and council officers suggesting that these problems will be overcome, pointing to the experience of other councils but postings from parents on the internet suggest their experiences do not fit with the council spin.

We believe councillors who enjoy cheap city centre parking do not have the moral authority to increase car parking charges for the rest of us. The recent increases in car parking charges has clearly resulted in a fall in revenue, however, we believe that increasing parking charges is the cause of the problem not the solution.

The removal of parking permits for people worshipping in city centre churches is an unfair tax on the Christian faith. Someone attending a two hour religious service on Sunday will pay £2 to park in the city centre, while people from other faiths will be able to park for 50p an hour in some car parks.

We do not support the proposal for the council to take over policing of no car lanes, as this is the equivalent of putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. Newcastle City Council has created a confusing road system in the city centre and we believe this provides an incentive for the council to make the road network even more complicated.

We believe that the council’s desire to penalise motorists visiting the city centre, through parking charges and taxing mistakes and wrong-turns will simply encourage more people to go to the Metrocentre.

There are numerous other services that the council is cutting that we are concerned about. We believe that residents have not been given enough information through the consultation to understand the full impact of Labour’s Scorched Newcastle Budget.

Castle Dene and Cheviot View Respite Centres

We are opposed to many of the council’s proposed cuts. Councillors heard directly from a representative of the carers who use Castle Dene and Cheviot View and we urge the council to reconsider the decision to close this service.

While closure of other services will destroy the life chances of children, may create an obesity epidemic or put pressure on city residents, Castle Dene and Cheviot View are a lifeline for carers and their families. The closure of these centres will totally destroy some families and break up marriages, which will not save money for the council if this leads to an increase in the number of people requiring other kinds of support.

Putting More Power in the Hands of Local People

We are concerned about the council’s decision to cut accountability of councillors through local ward committee meetings. Reducing frequency of meetings may have a detrimental impact on local community organisations and result in more behind closed doors decisions.

We believe that Newcastle needs to refocus resources to enable decisions to be taken at the lowest possible level. Newcastle should undertake a governance review to consider the creation of street level local councils.

With a transfer of some city council resources, the local council - with its unpaid representatives of the community - can fund its own running costs without having to add a precept to the council tax. This new generation of local councils would be well placed to take over the running of community centres, some services that are best delivered at a local level and may even have the potential to take over running of libraries and leisure centres as well as the role they can play in developing neighbourhood plans.

Local councils would need to be large enough to bring about some economies of scale but would have a more local democratic mandate than the city council. These local councils would also have the potential to raise money through an additional precept on the council tax, if there was support within the local community to protect services.

There is already a proposal to create a local council on similar boundaries to the former Newburn Urban District Council, covering Denton, Lemington, Newburn and Westerhope Wards as well as the unparished part of Woolsington Ward. A governance review for the whole city would enable us to debate the shape of local services in our city and provide a mechanism to significantly reduce the number of paid politicians in the city.

Enough is Enough

We do not support many of the choices outlined in the budget and we are concerned about the political rhetoric and exaggeration of the scale of challenge the council faces.

Nevertheless, we believe the Conservative and Lib Dem Government has short-changed our city and effectively moved resources from deprived areas predominantly in the North to the more affluent South.

Labour got us into the mess we are in and the Conservatives and Lib Dems are giving a tax cut to the mega rich, mainly in the South, while Newcastle will see its services stripped to the bone.

We are challenging the Government to give Newcastle a better deal.

Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative Governments have all let down Newcastle. All three parties found money to invest in High Speed Rail services but all three parties have shown in Government that Newcastle is not on their list of priorities. This is not good enough.

The three main parties have clearly given up on Newcastle. We believe it is time to give up on them and to put Newcastle First.

Page 1 - News Story

Page 2 - Read full response here

Page 3 - Text of Letter to the Prime Minister

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