Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Monday 2nd March 7pm

Full Council

The Conservative opposition were noticeably better behaved at tonight’s meeting, almost falling over themselves to be more agreeable in the presence of the press and public.

 

The meeting started off most interestingly as under ‘Questions asked by members of the public’ two of the five questions were asked by the wives of sitting Conservative councillors! Mrs Howell raised the issue of dog fouling & Mrs Russell took issue with the Life Centre.

 

The two agenda items that received most attention at the meeting were the regeneration of the Elizabeth House Sheltered Housing Scheme and the 2009/10 Council Budget.

 

As a number of representatives of residents of Elizabeth House were in attendance this item was taken first. The matter had been referred to full council by Conservative members. The issue concerned the report made by independent firm Tribal Consulting which concluded that the existing sheltered housing scheme was not fit for purpose and, most significant here, stated that refurbishment of the properties would not bring them up to adequate sheltered housing standards, would not meet the needs of residents with significant care needs, and would result in a loss in the overall number of units on the site. It did state that a phased development would be workable at the site.

 

Cllr Colin Stears, the Executive Member with responsibility for Adult Social Services and Housing had submitted some alterations to the recommendations which aimed to formalise the council’s intent to involve the existing residents of the scheme in the development of the new build and to ensure that there was close monitoring of every stage of the process. The opposition had also submitted an amendment. As the alteration and the amendment were so similar in content it was obvious that there was agreement between the parties and Cllr. Witham agreed to withhold his amendment and support Cllr. Stear’s altered recommendation.

 

I had prepared a speech on this motion highlighting the nature of the accommodation Elizabeth House residents were currently living in – studio flats without their own bathrooms meaning residents had to share communal facilities with other residents; stairs and narrow doorways unsuitable for wheelchair users or the infirm; no lifts and accommodation not large enough to permit visits from family. However, due to the amount of agreement over the details of the recommendations following the report it was felt that my speech was not necessary, much to the dismay of my colleague Cllr. Slark, who felt that these issues were central to the issue of regeneration.

 

The remainder of the meeting was taken with the debate on the Council’s proposed budget.

 

In the current economic climate this budget had been a difficult one. The desire to keep the council tax burden as low as possible had to be balanced with maintaining services and protecting the vulnerable and less fortunate from the effects of the recession. Councillor Drage, executive member for resources, stated that he was not prepared to follow the example of other boroughs and raise the criteria for access to social care, meaning that we remained one of only two London boroughs with moderate level criteria; both Liberal Democrat run councils. However this also meant that we had to factor in growth in these areas, for example the demand for services for autistic children are increasing rapidly. We have stuck to this policy of offering help at the moderate level of need on the grounds of prudence; early intervention can often prevent deterioration of a situation thereby avoiding greater & more prolonged demands on our services later.

 

As widely publicised the Tory opposition called on us to freeze the council tax. Their ‘fully costed’ means of doing this meant using up the general reserves listed in the balance sheet. This naïve and short-term solution was derided by Cllr. Drage and myself, among others. Councillor Drage pointed out that this might work for one year but then left the council totally exposed to the vagaries of the economic climate in future years. I ridiculed the Tories’ claims to have “uncovered £11million sitting in council coffers” as this ‘research’ simply required a perfunctory reading of the council’s financial statements, something that I would expect was a requirement of any opposition challenging a proposed budget.

 

The opposition did in fact only give the use of general reserves method of budgeting a slight outing during the debate, seemingly already embarrassed at having suggested it. Instead they focused their attack on the Life Skills centre – a development project now part of the capital programme. Apparently we should turn down the offer of £4million from central government to help build a new library, community centre and youth facilities. They failed to see that this would also take away the employment opportunities for local people to work on this project. Nor the fact that halting this project would not make any more money available for council services as capital funds cannot be used to supplement everyday operations.

 

The next line of attack from the Tories was to refer to other councils that had managed to freeze their council tax levels. They didn’t highlight what services these councils had had to cut to afford this freeze. We countered with our reputation as a value for money authority, receiving less than 50% of our budgeted requirements from central government yet still providing high quality services. This was in sharp contrast to other boroughs such as Kensington & Chelsea who receive a grant covering 58% of their requirements; Wandsworth who receive 75%, or Westminster who receive 78%. You also have to question how much benefit an extra £50 per household would really bring – less than a pound a week. And this would provide an equal benefit to those residents living in large houses in Cheam and Worcester Park as for residents struggling on the breadline on the Roundshaw Estate or in St Helier ward.

 

As for the previous twenty nine years in opposition the Tories failed to produce an alternative budget. When Cllr. Kane highlighted this fact it was met with groans. I am not sure whether these were groans of embarrassment from the back benches or groans at the thought of actually having to d386410abusinessman-sitting-in-corner-with-dunce-hat-posters1o a few sums. I have been told that even when the Liberal Democrats were the opposition and down to just two members they still managed to produce an alternative budget. It seems just lazy to me that with twenty one members the opposition still can’t put together a few figures.

 

In summary my analysis of the Conservatives’ budget plans to deal with the recession consist of putting everything on hold and hoping it will all go away soon: the equivalent of pulling the covers over your head when things get tough instead of facing up to the challenging times ahead and not expecting it to be easy or of being popular.

 

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April 6, 2009 - Posted by | Committee Meeting

2 Comments »

  1. I note with interest, Councillor McCoy, your criticism of Tory councillors’ wives asking questions. What does that matter?

    In your view are they somehow barred from engaging in the democratic process by virtue of their marriage? The Taliban would certainly approve, if so.

    Not very liberal, I contend.

    Comment by simon griffin | April 9, 2009 | Reply

    • What criticism? Merely an observation!

      Comment by jaynemccoy | April 15, 2009 | Reply


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