Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Axeman Cometh

We are fast approaching that time when the London Borough of Hounslow delivers its budget for the coming year. In early March 2011 Borough Council will debate and vote upon a series of proposals that will, it hopes, enable it to reduce the local authority's annual spending by £18m. Inevitably valuable provision will be cut and the public will see a reduction in the services it receives.

The Axeman is an avowedly non-party political being. Up until 2006 he slashed services under a Labour administration, causing much angst as he closed John Aird House (a residential care home in Brentford), threatened to privatise vital health care services and hacked £1m in a single blow from the Education budget at a time when monies provided by the government for that very purpose were not ring-fenced. I attended more than one demonstration against what appeared to me to be acts of almost gratuitous inhumanity.

Then in 2006 a new administration took office of which the Independent Community Group (ICG) was a part. Almost immediately our Conservative coalition partners announced the launch of a drastic cost-cutting initiative called the Performance Improvement Programme (PIP) and declared its intention to freeze Council Tax levels, which we generally supported and between us actually managed to do for four years in a row. But there were casualties, not least the Hounslow Language Service, and from opposition Labour opposed many of the savings made by the coalition Axeman, campaigning against cuts in public services as we ourselves had done in opposition.

Now Labour is back in office, and the Axeman is once again playing for the team in red. Granted the impetus for the drastic programme of cuts upon which Hounslow is about to embark comes from central government and its savage Comprehensive Spending Review, but nonetheless the Labour administration has to deal with the same reality as the coalition administration before it and the old Labour administration before that. That reality is that the level of central government support for local councils declines year upon year no matter who is in charge at the Exchequer.

What happens at the stage we are at now is that Lead Members will have asked Chief Officers to identify potential savings in their own departments. Some of those suggested savings are included in this document, which will be discussed by the Executive next week.

The flaw in this process, and which has always been the case, is that Chief Officers will invariably identify those savings that they themselves are comfortable with, and omit those that they are not. For instance, rarely if at all will Lead Members be presented with a proposal to reduce Chief Officer salaries, or to merge departments so as to reduce their number. Unless the Lead Member is unusually hands-on, he or she will almost always accept the options presented as being the only ones realistically available.

The ICG has not had the opportunity to formally discuss these proposals as yet, but what I imagine will concern my colleagues in particular are the various implied assaults on local democracy. In particular the suggestion that Area Committees could be abolished or curtailed. My guess is that these were probably amongst the first proposals to have been mooted by certain of our Chief Officers and I would be surprised if much sleep was lost as they found their way onto the list.

It would be tempting, of course, to consider Area Committees as a luxury by comparison with frontline services to the really needy such as Older People or Children's Services. By that logic we might just as well do away with elections to the council as well - the potential saving involved would be considerable.

But the whole rationale of local government is that it enjoys a democratic mandate. This is precisely why elected members, as opposed to the more "expert" officers, are ultimately responsible for making decisions. Once that principle has been compromised we are embarked upon a journey down a very slippery slope with no handbrake. One cannot put a price on democracy.

I am also concerned by the suggestion that local community centres may be cut adrift. Sure, I do note from the document that the need for local community groups to be given time to build the capacity to take them over is acknowledged, but knowing as I do the complete lack of interest in resident involvement or even opinion that exists in certain departments there is little doubt in my mind that, were such a proposal to be taken up, our community centres would be abandoned with indecent haste and indeed closed down as soon as it was felt it could be got away with.

This is not about empowering communities, this is about certain senior officers seizing a perceived opportunity to remove themselves forever from meaningful public scrutiny.

These are difficult times, and I am reluctant to try to score points by blaming the current administration for the predicament it finds itself in (although it has to be said, under the circumstances, that some of the ruling party's election promises were reckless to say the least - everyone knew there would be cuts whoever triumphed at the general election). However I do believe that the organised community must lobby hard to protect itself from any attempt to use government cuts as a convenient excuse for curtailing its freedoms and its ability to organise.


Anonymous said...

Well, what do we think about this one then ?

A few hours ago, I received a consultation notice from Hounslow Council simply dated "January 2011" asking if their housing stock should continue to be maintained by Hounslow Homes.
I'm invited to attend one of five drop-in surgeries for further details and to complete an enclosed questionnaire.

HOWEVER, I've already missed the first three surgeries and the fourth is tonight, and
questionnaires have to be returned by 17 Jan.

Doesn't appear to be much of a 'consultation', does it ?
LBH Watch, LBH Watch where for art thou ?

Anonymous said...

Phil, is this the same periodical review of Hounslow Homes which YOU chaired back in 2006 ?

If so, it looks like your old friends Mugabe & Sons were given the nod this time round.

Phil Andrews said...

Anonymous (arrrrgh!)

Yes, it is the same review. What are you basing your comments on?

Anonymous said...

Don't you think all this talk about closing EIGHT libraries is merely preparing residents for a highly unlikely worst case scenario ?

Some libraries will inevitably have to close, maybe three or four at the most and when this happens, the sense of relief that the others were 'saved' will be so overwhelming, people will actually forget that they've just lost three or four libraries !

If you fancy a little flutter Phil, with extremely heavy heart, I'm backing Beavers & Cranford for the chop.

Phil Andrews said...

Probably, but if we don't kick up about it they might just try their luck and go for it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Well, now they're talking about Public Halls, among them Isleworth's, being under threat.

Makes you wonder exactly what they're actually spending tax-payers money on ?

Anonymous said...

Phil, I've just seen all your various comments elsewhere regarding mobilising the local community into fighting against any proposed closures.

Very commendable, but surely you need the ICG website up and running to act as the main focal point ?

Phil Andrews said...

Are you volunteering Anonymous?

Seriously though, you are right but there are things that are likely to come from next week's AGM that will inform much of the content of the website.

Under the circumstances there doesn't seem much point in committing time most of us don't have in abundance right now, and then more time changing it all again immediately after the AGM.

But if you are offering to help then please do get in touch, as we are all volunteers trying to balance our community work with the need to make a living, as I'm sure you know yourself.

Anonymous said...

If in doubt, use the old 'mysterious' reference to the AGM ploy !

Do these meetings EVER take place ?

Phil Andrews said...

Mr. Anonymous

If you feel the work you are putting in for this community right now qualifies you to criticise the rest of us for not doing as much as you feel we ought to then I will leave that to your judgement and conscience.

Anonymous said...

What sort of an argument is that ?
It suggests that no-one should DARE criticise the ICG without proving their 'worthiness' to do so.
Is the 'calibre' of your potential critics really far more important than anything they have to say ?

Phil Andrews said...

Mr. Anonymous

At no time have I said that nobody should criticise the ICG unless they prove their worth.

Everybody has a right to criticise others whether or not they themselves feel motivated to volunteer a bit of their own time to help now and again between elections to work for the community of which they, like us, are part.

Your criticism have been taken on board, as they always are.

But please let me ask you a question. If you were out in the cold and rain delivering leaflets, for no personal gain, and having watched you do so from behind the window of the warm pub on the corner I sent you a text telling you that were not delivering them fast enough, how exactly would you feel?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure most people would take offence at that Phil, but if you suggested that it may be more beneficial for the leafleteer to distribute his wares elsewhere, most people would listen to the argument.