BY Richard Longstaff Green Party Councillor for Leigh Ward.
Thank you to Leigh News for having me return for another political viewpoint.
It’s certainly chiller now we have passed Halloween and Guy-Fawkes nights, two competing entities in a saturated world of activities and entertainment.
I attended the excellent Southend Halloween Parade for the first time, and what a turnout despite the weather. The streets were heaving with families eager to experience the spectacle. The rain didn’t dampen the ‘spirit’ of the parade either.
Amongst other things, I also actively attended the 3rd Southend Water Summit recently at Leigh Sailing Club, with Anglian Water to address the drainage and sewage issues.
I was very pleased to see excellent progress is being made with much investment and pledges, making the summit a trail-blazer in the UK. However, the timeline of 2030 isn’t ideal, but we are assured that AW will be working hard to accelerate their modernisation programme. We will now monitor and measure their promises, which I am optimistic they will deliver.
In other news, what a situation I’ve stepped into as a middling Green Councillor sat between the Red and Blue Groups within the Chamber. There’s fierce debate over the state of the City’s finances and who is responsible for the councils’ woes. However, we cannot ignore how central Government has cut council budgets by some 90%, learning this I then I read weeks later that it wasn’t direct cuts, as Government did divert business rates revenue to Councils instead of central government coffers. It’s all swings and roundabouts with so many statistics being referenced that it’s hard to keep up or even find validity in what’s said.
One bone of contention is the 6-9pm car parking charges in central Southend – brought in during the last year of the previous administration and abolished with the new incoming administration.
I read figures like £500k £800k even £1million were projected forecasts after a few months’ operation. Now the charges have been abolished with the new administration and someone mentions how visitor numbers have increased – but by how many? And who benefits? So, I try to verify the claims…. Well, I’m still waiting – watch this space.
Whatever the statistics one stat is certain, the Council are in a £14m financial black hole and we need to collectively act to stave off an uncertain future, or even worse, bankruptcy, as has happened to so many councils around the country, like the second largest, Birmingham, and our Unitary neighbours, Thurrock last December.
It’s therefore an important subject and one our Green party is being proactive about in sending our suggestions on how to decrease spending and increase revenue. Take agency workers, it was recently announced the council spent nearly £1million in September alone – one agency worker was being paid £1,000 per day. Now departed of course as the council cannot sustain this level of expenditure. I agree we need more permanent staff, but it’s not always that simple and staff retention is another big issue that’s frustrating some council departments.
Over the last 15 years Southend has had an annual capital budget of £60m and has needed to borrow £26m to make that up, some 43% difference (source, Finance Director presentation). The interest alone on this lending is some £1.8m per year cost to the council….. so in reality we have been overspending and borrowing for 15 years, like most of us with the prevalence of cheap loans. It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that it’s not sustainable. Quibbles about this and that, and by which administration are futile.
Some services are mandatory, like Social Services for example. Spending here is forecast to cost some £13.4m this financial year and is set to increase year-on-year.
I learnt at the Green Party Conference recently that Government is allocating grants for councils to access, however, that takes extra resources as councils have to allocate staff to compile the bids, and then we have neighbouring councils pitching for the same limited pot, which in itself is a wasted resource.
There is also a ‘transformational blueprint’ underway to help find efficiencies and streamline services. How can we be leaner and Greener? Voluntary redundancies is another suggestion. But again, it’s not so simple as it is like a complex Chinese puzzle and a council culture that is deeply embedded in doing things the way it always has.
Don’t fix what’s not broken we often hear, but the problem now is that it is broken, and we need to adapt or die. Perhaps that’s the end game, and a new council will rise like the phoenix from the ashes.
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