12th March 2016
Today, at the Liberal Democrat National Spring Conference Judith Bunting spoke about the need for sound and stable public finances at local and national level, and the devastating effect that that Tory cuts are having on our young people:
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Good morning, Conference. I want to highlight the link between the need for sound and stable management of public finances and the devastating effects the current Conservative drive to kill off local authority funding by central government is having on the education, training and aspiration of young people around the UK.
George Osborne’s commitment to reduce government funding of local councils to zero by 2020 has not received enough attention in the press. That’s one for the journalists in the hall – the Conservatives have not been challenged nearly enough on what result this draconian change of funding is going to have.
I was the parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Newbury in West Berkshire in 2015. We currently have a Tory MP and a horribly Tory Council – they lead the council 48 to 4.
Last week, they imposed £10m of cuts on our public services. In a few weeks time they will be making a further £6m of cuts. They are closing bus routes, school bus subsidies, children’s centres, funding for charities like Mencap and Time to Talk, and they are about to close 8 out of 9 of our libraries.
There are other cuts as well, but so much of the damage is falling on the back of our children, that I worry for the future. I really do. I am not convinced that many Tories, including our MP and our Council, have given a second’s consideration to how this mis-management of public finances is going to affect our young people.
Whatever happens in the future, however, we are unlikely to ever be able to turn the clock back and restore the funding that Richard Benyon’s government is removing from local authorities, so how will Councils in the future achieve sound and stable management of public finances at a local level without a government settlement.
To answer this, I look to Liberal Democrat led Councils such as Eastleigh, now, and Portsmouth, as was. These teams set up additional income streams some years ago now to take the pressure off their public services. For example:
- In Portsmouth, the council has for a long time had external businesses that they run to make a profit. It now owns and lets a number of extensive buildings to the HMRC and other commercial operators.
- Eastleigh Council is part-owner of the Ageas Bowl cricket ground, hotel and spa, a profitable enterprise, which supports their schools, libraries and community centres
This £150m asset management plan has enabled 13 years of real term cuts in council tax and no front line service cuts.
If a small council like Eastleigh can find ways to raise money without increasing the very unfair council tax and can still provide the services people need, why can’t West Berkshire Council?
Ambitious and imaginative councils can run good services without pushing up the council tax. A senior source at the LGA recently vouchsafed to me that the only way Councils are going to manage in the future is going to be to own and let property. What is West Berkshire and other Conservative Councils doing, but selling off property for short term gain.
Since 2013 Local Authorities have also had the power the power to keep up to half of any business rate growth in their area. West Berkshire Council’s response to this is to lose Bayer to Reading, lose Hitachi, lose Amec and force numerous local traders out of business.
We sorely need a Liberal Democrat hand on the tiller. In government, to halt the mean-spirited cutting of George Osborne, and at the local level, in West Berkshire, to put some vigour and commitment into the funding of our public services.
The only way to achieve this is to develop strong, clear policies, like this the Economic Policy before us today and to restore some good sense and sound management to public finances in government and in local authorises across the UK.