Local Lib Dems challenge government ban on local authority bus companies

The government is currently trying to change legislation so that local authorities would be banned from starting up bus companies.

The Lib Dem group will call for cross party support on Wednesday against these proposals. We will ask the Council to publicly challenge the plans and to write to the relevant government ministers in protest at these plans.

Any council at some point in the future could find that it has to set up services should there be no local private companies willing or able to run services. The remove this ability is clearly a political move by the Tory Government, and it is unacceptable. Indeed many rural areas of the Country could be aversely hit – ironically many of which are normally Conservative leaning in their views.

Private companies frequently find it difficult to set up bus services in rural areas, and if we remove the ability of a local council to do this then we in effect shut down localism – precisely the opposite of what this government professes to support.

The Link 2 service operated by the Council in County Durham offers a prime example of a service which has been set up to fill a gap in services. I would hate to think that in other areas, should a council wish to,  services could not be set up, or become far more difficult to set up, leaving the vulnerable, disabled or the elderly stranded.

We hope all councillors will support our motion, which Cllr Richard Ormerod is proposing.

Appalling treatment of teaching assistants by our Labour-run Council: TA: “I have never in my whole working life ever felt so undervalued, unsupported and unappreciated”

Durham Council has decided it wants to cut the pay of teaching assistants by thousands of pounds a year as well as increase work hours.

Over recent months councillors have received dozens of emails about this. I find myself wondering how it can be possible for Durham Council to be run by the Labour Party and for them to seek to slash the pay of some of the lowest paid members of the teaching profession.

We recently tried to get the plans thrown out at full council but Labour councillors first timed out the debate so they didn’t have to vote, and then when it came back a month later, changed the motion to render it unacceptable. The consultation on new terms has now concluded and we wait to see what our Labour Cabinet comes up with next. If it is anything like that recommended in the proposals, I for one will not be supporting it. It cannot be right to cut someone’s pay by thousands of pounds and increase their hours. It is simply unacceptable.

Across County Durham there are over 2700 teaching assistants. I imagine that the way this Labour-run council has been over this issue is going to have a huge impact on how TAs vote in next years local elections. When you take into account their partners, friends and relatives and all the other residents who will be looking at how TAs are being treated, this one issue alone has the potential to see Labour lose many seats in the May 2017 elections perhaps over 100 votes in every single Electoral Division.

I picked out some emails from TAs to give a feel for just how serious the impact of Labour’s proposals are. If I were a TA I would be very worried, very angry and very upset. We are currently waiting to see when this issue will come back to full council.

Just imagine if tomorrow your pension or salary was cut by 20%, your working ours increased. Then think – and most of this is because of the Labour Party! add in hikes in National Insurance/Pension contributions from the Tories, and other general price increases and these hard working people are really going to suffer…….. Utterly shameful.

Emails below from Tas.

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Labour’s Council tax hike comes into force

So from today we are all paying more council tax. The near 4% rise in council tax was conveniently split into two elements.

2% for adult social care – the Tory part of the rise. The council wasn’t forced to make this increase but given the pressures on the care budget and the increases in carers wages due to the living wage, I’m supportive of this element of the rise. Care workers are obscenely underpaid for such an important job. Of course that does not mean the council should not continue to look at ways to make things more efficient in the Adult and Children’s Services department.

The second part of the council tax hike – the 100% Labour-run council responsibility is the bit I have a real issue with.

If this money, being taken out of residents pockets, and therefore out of the economy, were being spent to protect frontline services which would otherwise be lost, I could be convinced to support it. However, it is simply not being spent on that.

Rather, the following is happening:

  1. WASTE: The council is still wasting millions on over management and which had it fixed years ago when we made recommendations would have saved many millions. It is still delaying further merging of departments, which would have allowed a delay at least in this tax rise.
  2. MISMANAGEMENT: Some departments still have crazy working practices. I know of one, where the checking and rechecking of forms for spending money on schemes is costing more than the schemes themselves – utter lunacy. In other areas the Council is letting everyone down – staff, residents, taxpayers. We are still not referring staff with mental health issues to occupational health immediately. One staff member wasn’t referred for 303 days! The average is around 50 days. This is appalling and it has been and is costing an absolute fortune in lost work hours. We have managed to get the Council to agree to change this, but half a year on since we put the proposals, we are still looking at many months before anything concrete on the ground. Sickness absence levels are running at crazyly high levels, which even Labour councillors lament. Any organisation which treats its staff in such an atrocious way will always have a pile of other problems lurking under the surface.
  3. RESERVES: The council has over £200 million in over 50 different reserves, and whilst some of this money is prudent to hold, most of it never gets spent from one year to the next, and with every year that passes we find we have even more in the bank. So no need for the Council tax hike this year.
  4. FLAWED PRIORITIES: Because of the reserves hikes and a flawed investment strategy some services really do suffer – such as the state of our roads and footpaths – when they simply do not have to. The Council can borrow at ridiculously low rates at the moment, and could then spend millions of pounds on improving our roads and footpaths with no risk to the balance sheet or simply use its reserves directly to put more into properly fixing this infrastructure. By getting the worst areas fixed properly, we would save money on short term useless slap and stick repairs. Equally, the Council could have delayed action on some savings. The closure of the DLI museum is a shocking indictment of the Labour Party’s desire to eliminate the history of the County. Had it held a consultation to listen to all alternative views, perhaps a solution which actually made money and protected this asset could have been found.
  5.  INACCURATE BUDGETTING: Having looked at the budget plans for the financial year starting this week, there is so much slack, over-estimating of costs and the like, that the whole council tax hike may end up sat in reserves rather than being productive in the County. One more or all of the following have occurred each year since the new authority was formed: Overestimates on energy, price or borrowing costs, underestimates on income or internal efficiency savings. When reserves go from the tens of millions to over £200 million, there isn’t a single Labour councillor can deny this fact and keep a straight face.

What is very clear is that with the Labour Party in charge at Durham County Council, waste, mismanagement, manipulation of the truth, and flawed priorities are only going to continue to let down the people of County Durham.

 

Council budget shame

On Monday I emailed Councillor Simon Henig to ask permission! to ask a question related to the budget at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting: When Cabinet was to approve the final budget. He refused my request and I was told that no back bench member (116 councillors) would be permitted to ask Cabinet ANY questions on their budget proposals.

So I then asked if he or any of his Cabinet colleagues would be attending the budget scrutiny meeting on Friday (today). To date he has still not responded to me, and NOT A SINGLE CABINET MEMBER ATTENDED!!

In that meeting, the only one before the budget is voted on by Full Council, I brought along some recommendations for Scrutiny to put to Cabinet. This related to stopping service cuts to neighbourhood wardens, museums and local AAP budgets as well as trying to stop reductions in staffing numbers in planning. I also had three proposals asking to provide funding to road and footpath repairs, careers advice services for young people, and stopping the council profiting from essential work to school buildings.

I gave 20 copies of this to the Chairman Councillor Joe Armstrong prior to the meeting. The only issue on the agenda was the budget. The whole purpose of the meeting was to make recommendations to Cabinet and to provide comments. Cllr Armstrong told me that he would not allow the proposals to be discussed because “It was too late to make any changes to the budget”. So why then bother with holding the meeting?

In the meeting I was refused the opportunity to discuss the proposals but I handed round the single A4 sheet anyway. Other than these proposals which I was refused to discuss, not one single councillor put forward a single proposal on the budget.

SO SCRUTINY DIDN’T MAKE A SINGLE RECOMMENDATION. THAT’S 116 BACKBENCH COUNCILLORS AND NO RECOMMENDATIONS PUT TO CABINET.

My proposals from the Lib Dem group have been passed to Cabinet with no comments from scrutiny. I was refused a vote on any of them, refused discussion on any of them, and at no point in any meeting has Cabinet allowed a single question to be asked of Cabinet members about their budget plans.

Next week full council will vote on the budget. Labour will simply vote through the report. Every single Labour councillor will then be responsible for that budget.

Expect just £5m of council money to go on repairing roads with the £10m from government – despite us having a backlog of £250 million of repairs needed.

Expect the council to continue to make profits at many different levels from repairs to the schools they own, and to put that profit not back into school repairs, but into reserves.

Expect neighbourhood wardens to be cut. Expect the planning department and the support departments around it to have their staffing reduced so less proper scrutiny of planning applications will be possible.

Expect an excellent plan to help young people with careers advice not to be implemented by September – partly the fault of the Conservative government delaying European funding (I wonder why), but mainly the fault of DCC for failing to agree to fund it.

Expect a budget which will see us spend hardly any reserves, and still have over £200 million in the bank.

Expect a hike in council tax of 3.9% and for much of that money too, to end up in reserves this year.

On the bright side. The six communications departments that we have been telling the council to bring together for years are now to be brought into one department.

If they had done this years ago when it was first put forward by opposition councillors – indeed its been put forward every year for many years – we would now have MILLIONS  OF POUNDS more to improve our roads or schools, or other services.

Why wasn’t it done earlier? Why have Labour wasted taxpayers money delaying so many areas of saving which do not affect front line services?

Answer?

Incompetence.

The undemocratic way in which the budget is put together at Durham County Council is unacceptable and must change. The only way to do it is to change the political leadership.

Labour Cabinet members seem blind to the fact that if you are transparent and work with the public, the opposition and even their own back benchers, good ideas can benefit not only residents but also them, the Council and even the Labour Party.

Simply ignoring everything which comes forward from outside that clique of 10 Cabinet members simply results in bad publicity all round. To coin a phrase from Forrest Gump – Stupid is as stupid does.

£220 million council reserves

We requested a review of Durham County Council reserves and at least £64.481m cash has been found not allocated to anything according to next weeks Cabinet papers. We believe it is even more.

I had asked for the review after reserves at the North East’s largest authority rocketed above £200m. The latest cabinet report for next week’s meeting shows an expected increase in reserves to £220m – an increase predicted by Liberal Democrat councillors back in March of this year.

The Authority’s Cabinet will approve transferring the surplus money into a £30m delivery reserve to help combat government cuts. A further £34m will go towards plans to build a new County Hall.

Councillor Amanda Hopgood said of this “We have consistently said the Council had more money available than it admitted. We have been proven right. The council now have £220m reserves and have had to admit that  tens of millions were available all along.”

I believe that millions of pounds more could be made available if the Council got its priorities right.

The council has still not made many of the sensible savings we have suggested. It still has six communications departments. It still spends a fortune on County News – its publicity magazine. It still has more directors than it needs.

I believes that Durham’s unitary authority is its own worst enemy. By failing to make these sensible savings, and holding huge amounts in reserve, they are giving ammunition to the Tory cuts.

The government is going to turn around and say the public sector still has piles of money. Look at Durham they can afford to build a new Council Palace and have piles of cash.

On the ground of course, local residents know that so much more could be done to improve County Durham. They also know that Labour politicians are ignoring their views. Poor quality roads and footpaths, leaking schools and the closing of the DLI museum without any consultation are prime examples.”

We believe that in addition to the reserves hike the council has further over estimated various elements of its budget including inflation (over 10 times the national rate), debt costs (no increase so far this year) and energy inflation (falling not rising). All this suggests reserves could hit a quarter of billion pounds by the end of the year.

Conservative energy policy a disaster

In just one week, over 1000 jobs have been lost in the solar energy industry. This is entirely the fault of the Conservative government. They are cutting the tariffs for solar energy by nearly 90%.

When the Lib Dems were in government we helped to massively boost renewable energy across the UK, helping both the environment and our energy security. The Tories are now putting our energy security at risk. a further 1000 jobs across the North East are in danger of being lost and the figures could be even worse.

If the Conservatives suddenly announced they were scrapping subsidies for North Sea oil firms (which get billions), I am sure that their industry with all the power it has would be knocking on the government door with sledgehammers. Sadly solar and renewable energy firms do not have as much money or influence as the big oil companies.

The last government was the greenest ever because of the Lib Dems. This government is destroying all the good work which was started leaving us to continue to rely on unsafe, environmentally polluting foreign fuel supplies from unstable parts of the world.

Council refuses to advertise externally for new Chief Exec

Our esteemed Labour-run council has refused a Lib Dem request to advertise the position of Chief Exec outside of the Authority.

This was with the support of at least one of the independent group leaders and the Conservative group leader. Only the Lib Dems pushed for transparent process.

I fail to understand what the council has to lose by advertising to get the best person for job. None of the internal applicants would have anything to worry about if they are up to the position. There are senior officers who may be capable of being Chief Exec but it is unacceptable for local residents to not have a fully open selection.

The council has reduced the salary for the position from just over £200k down to £185k. However this is unlikely to save any money since the existing Chief Exec hasn’t been getting pension contributions from the Authority for a few years, and there is a good chance whoever comes next will get those contributions which could cost up to £35,000 a year.

It is time that Durham County Council reduced the number of Directors. If it is to select a Chief Exec from inside, there should not be a replacement position for the vacant Director position, but rather a reorganisation.

The council could operate quite comfortably without the Assistant Chief Exec position and one less director – many others do. The position of Director of Adult and Children’s Services has a budget and responsibility which is many many times that of other departments, so there is plenty of scope to make savings which could amount to £1m a year and help to protect other front-line services.

We have suggested this for many years and if it had been done already, millions of pounds would have been saved. Sadly our Labour-run council is ALWAYS behind the curve, and never a week goes by without it wasting money.