LOOKING at Labour’s long list of budget cuts for the coming year I could not help but be left with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
Many of the proposed cuts are not new at all, but rather re-submitted cuts drawn up by council officers and rejected by the previous Conservative administration.
To take a couple of examples. Officers during the last council recommended on at least two occasions the closure of the Albert Dane Centre in Southall. This was consistently rejected by the previous Conservative administration on the grounds that it provided a valuable service and lifeline to some of the most vulnerable in our community.
Again, the proposal allegedly being put forward by Cllr Mahfouz to savagely cut the number of envirocrime officers from one per ward (23) to just 12 and get rid of the street cleansing monitoring team is not new. It was put forward by officers previously and rejected by the then Conservative administration on the grounds that it was these very staff who have contributed so much to improving the levels of street cleaning in the borough and the reduction in graffiti and fly tipping – a position which we should be working to continue to improve, not seeking to go backwards.
The Leader of the Council, Cllr Bell, has been telling us that the coming budget will be a challenging one. On this, I completely agree with him and this therefore calls for looking at new and innovative ways to save money – not just blindly accepting dusted down old saving proposals from officers that will have a dramatic impact upon the lives of many residents in the borough and is why they were previously rejected.
One only has to look at the work of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster who are looking to merge some of their services to see the types of ‘blue sky’ thinking that is being adopted but the Labour administration has failed completely in their budget proposals to come up with any new ideas or innovation – preferring instead to simply ‘salami slice’ away at existing budgets based no doubt on the recommendations of officers who seem to have used the change in the council administration to get through all the proposals rejected by the Conservatives.
This is possible because the Labour administration has no clear direction as to where it wants to go, what it seeks to achieve over their four year team and as such this policy vacuum is being filled by officers who have their own proposals. I think no decision typifies this more than the decision by the Labour administration to spend £3 million of taxpayers’ money on upgrading council computers and IT.
You can just imagine the scene – the Leader of the Council in a room with a handful of officers, the Leader is regaled with stories of some form of ‘armageddon’ taking place if the IT investment is not made (of course no mention is made of the millions already spent over the past years in this area) and of course then to clinch the deal promises that better IT will mean more cash savings will be possible. The breakdown of how and on what the £3 million will be spent and what the cash savings will actually will of course be somewhat vague. The Leader agrees - with the priority needs of residents, rather than the internal council bureaucracy, barely meriting a mention.
Sometimes elected members do have to say No. I accept that knowing when to say No and when to accept the advice that is being given can be a difficult balance to achieve but it is part of the job and officers, like councillors, are not always right. I remember during my time as Leader significant officer opposition to a proposal to work with our immediate neighbouring boroughs in the procurement of adult services. In the end I had to effectively overrule officers and proceed with the policy despite claims that in some way civilisation as we know it may end. It was heartening therefore to hear the present Leader of the Council announce a couple of Cabinets ago that this policy looks set to save the Council around £1 million a year. No cuts to front line services, just a smarter approach to how we buy services and £1 million saved.
This is an approach that this Labour administration needs to learn quickly. Last week a member of staff at the council told me a joke: Q: ‘How do you find out what the Leader of the Council thinks on a policy issue?’ A: ‘You ring the Chief Executive.’
Cruel this joke certainly is, but is it fair?