Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Brent Council vote through budget cuts
The best place to read what went on in Brent council meetings is always the Wembley Matters blog. Not this time, as author Martin Francis was not allowed in to the meeting. As he says "democracy in action?". Well, hardly, but what was to come in the meeting itself was even worse...
Ann John, Leader of the Labour Group (and therefore Leader of the Council) told us that
"our residents rely on labour to protect their interests...it's a brave, determined and responsible response...not shied away from difficult decisions...a budget of priorities...proud of Executive...leadership and honesty...being honest with local people...budget takes £41.7m out of Council's budget this year...next year further £25 to be taken out...we've balanced what's fair with what can be achieved...pledge that we would continue to improve Brent services...regeneration...South Kilburn...Wembley...old, young, vulnerable...mew Willesden Green centre (at no cost to tax payer)...new Civic Centre saving up to £4m per year in running costs...we will keep faith with our library users [an empty phrase if ever there was one]...cannot afford to keep all 12 libraries open... better home library service...dark times...have to choose...warm words not enough...[long attack on government, and on Liberal Democrat group in Council]"
I'm sure you've got the picture by now - although Ann John had a lot more to say, including that she had met residents and listened [and, in the case of libraries, then totally ignored what they had to say]
Last minute shreds of good news were that Youth Centres were reprieved, law centres would not lose all their funding, the Welsh Harp Environmental Centre would be part private funded. Interestingly, Ann John described the Youth Centres in glowing terms (they are this borough's future), while not having a single positive word for the importance of libraries to "the Brent residents of tomorrow".
So, no surprises there then.
The Lib Dems proposed a number of alternatives to specific labour cuts, explaining how these could be funded. In a cynical (but predictable) move, the Labour group voted for these amendments to be taken en bloc rather than individually, preventing labour councillors from voting independently on, say, one proposed amendment with particular relevance for their ward. Take Charteris Sports Centre, for example- the lib dems suggested it could be saved by cutting the Brent Magazine and "managing overspends in the Chief Exec's department", but that proposal could not be voted on individually.
Paul Lorber, the Leader of the Lib Dems, resisting the temptation to spend his whole 30minute slot criticising the previous Labour government, told us
"today is about the future...there is another way...proving it's possible to listen to residents and listen to their concerns...today's proposals are not a real attempt to protect services...Lorraine Skinner [Lorraine- I hope you're reading this!] started a scheme called Greenzones to encourage her netighbours to recycle more and reduce their waste...cost next to nothing to run the scheme...something which residents run and which they support will always achieve more"
As to Libraries, the lib dems proposed that the £408,000 [really so little?] to be removed from the libraries budget be put back in. He stated the lib dem support for libraries...we didn't close any despite a consultants' report recommending closure...current consultation doesn't finish until 4th March...essential give more time to library support groups to come up with proposals...
Council assumes it knows best...why have the major consultations been a total sham?...you'd already made up your minds...on waste, on CPZs [controlled parking zones], on libraries...our amendments are not about political point scoring...they're an attempt to get the council to really listen..to work with local people...look around this room, and the communities you've been elected to serve...time for Brent council to listen"
Harshadbhai Patel, the leader of the Conservative Group, was hard to hear from the Gallery, but did say
"no proper representation...time for ward councillors to make decisions in their wards and speak out...libraries...councillors must vote in the interest of residents in their wards...propose an amendment...to fund the libraries for the year 2011/12 to allow possible plans to be explored to allow all the libraries to continue...£2.5m could be found for this...[I'm not sure how - maybe by not increasing reserves by that amount- comments please to explain- thanks]
The particular significance of Patel's proposed amendment was that it could be voted on alone, and I allowed myself some small hope that ward councillors (including my two labour councillors) might therefore vote with their consciences and for the benefit of their residents rather than with the Labour party...but it was not to be [see below]
Patel also attacked the proposal to reduce street sweeping in residential areas from 3 times a week to twice a week...the borough will be dirtier...also cutting tree planting and maintenance
Of the other councillors who spoke, worth mentioning are Ann Hunter (lib dem) on Libraries:
"once they're gone they'll be gone for ever...we're proposing a rescue package...find £408,000 in budget to keep the libraries open for one year to give local residents chance to draw up business plans...John Murray the labour council leader of Salford did this...not a party political matter...Barry Gardiner [labour MP for Brent North] has spoken passionately about keeping libraries open, as has Sarah Teather [lib dem MP for Brent Central]...some issues are bigger than party politics, this is one of them. Not just about books...overheard a teenager on the bus saying she'd really miss that free hour on the internet...government was big enough to admit it got it wrong on forests...it changed its policy...as you've just done on the law centres...libraries are our urban forests...don't laugh...we want Brent to keep them all open...a year's reprieve...listen to the people you represent and vote with your hearts" [although even voting with their heads would be an improvement on blindly voting with their leader]
Great stuff, Ann, particularly as you seemed to have read my letter in the Kilburn Times last week urging Brent to listen to residents' views and do a forests sell-off type e-turn (I know, the dizzy heights of fame!) Read all three libraries letters here
Back to the meeting [nearly done, but this is important stuff, so bear with me]
James Powney, lead member for Environment and Culture, had been keeping a low profile, but was asked to speak by Ann John, and after a cheap jibe at the lib dems, said in relation to "various voluntary groups who want to do 3rd party takeovers... the timetable has been set by the government...if we have delays as proposed by the lib dems we'd have to pay for it by cutting something else..Greenzones...were paid for by a government grant...that grant was withdrawn...Libraries...we've seen some amendments which don't add up...spoke to Kensal Rise people [!] earlier tonight...officers will appraise any offer on the 10th of March...and report to the April Executive"
You'll notice that there was no mention of the fact that local residents have put enormous amounts of time and energy into exploring all ways of keeping libraries open, have organised meetings, printed posters, had read-ins, or any acknowledgment of the really encouraging community spirit, or any hint of any real interest in working with communities. It all seemed like it was really rather a nuisance.
Other lib dems pointed out that "this labour administration isn't listening to residents...thousands of people have written in in support of keeping libraries open...after 43 consultations on day care centres...the council knows better...and closed them...mismatch between what Ann John said and what's actually in the budget...
Our very own Simon Green [also best dressed and best haircut in the chamber] spoke in defence of Charteris Sports Centre, a vital local facility, suggesting an additional year of funding to allow community groups to put forward a business case, to be funded by scrapping the Brent magazine- Simon hadn't noticed any "Save the Brent Magazine" campaigns- and by a restructuring in the Chief Exec's office.
Finally the voting was reached and all the proposed amendments were rejected. Not a single labour councillor supported either the lib dems' amendments [which had to be accepted or rejected en bloc] or the conservatives' amemdment relating only to libraries- to keep them open for another year while other avenues were explored.
So, it was entirely as expected- the budget proposals voted through with only the labour group's own minor amendments [good news at least for the law centres, youth centres and Welsh Harp Environmental Education centre] but a very sad day for the libraries. However, the consultation is still going on until Friday 4th March- so please complete it here. Don't give up all hope yet!
If you feel that your councillors have not reflected your views or stood up for your interests, LET THEM KNOW! Find out who they are and how to contact them here