This week Wokingham’s Liberal Democrat led Council has begun a consultation process on proposed cuts to litter bins, street cleaning, and grass cutting. We have no confidence that the administration will listen to the outcome of the consultation unless the answer is one they agree with – as has been the case with other consultations held since the Liberal Democrats took power. But the way in which the Liberal Democrats have embarked on their cuts is an insult to residents.
The administration went ahead and started scrapping some public waste bins and reduced collection of others, designed to save a fraction of their target, without proper democratic decision-making or consulting local people. The process has now been halted thanks to intervention by Conservative councillors, which is the reason why this consultation is happening. Despite this, when the Liberal Democrat leadership gets round to making a decision properly, they will no doubt proceed with cuts to the service despite concerns about overflowing bins, rubbish blowing across parks, and an increase in vermin.
The Liberal Democrats have been scrambling to tell anyone that will listen that they are making cuts because they need to find £11.8million worth of savings this year. The problem is that this is far from being accurate. The budget set by the administration in February already had built in provision for meeting an £11million increase in costs caused by inflation. Then the rate of inflation was 10.4% and is now 6.4%.
So, the Liberal Democrats need to find an additional £800,000 in savings and deliver the budget they already set a few months ago – only 7% of the figure they’re actually talking about. It’s important that the administration is honest with residents, rather than trying to make them believe that the challenge is bigger than it is.
This year the Government increased the Council’s grant by £1.8 million, more than the Council had been expecting earlier in the Budget setting process. This was an increase of 7%, just above the current rate of inflation. Wokingham Borough Council has been among the bottom funded Authorities for over two decades, but do you think any Government would give more to Wokingham compared to less affluent areas?
The savings expected to be achieved from fewer public litter bins is £70k. To put that figure into context it was reported last week that the Council will advertise for a new Director of children’s services with an annual salary of £136,000 – an increase on the current Director’s pay, and spend £7k on advertising the post. In addition, the council spend on agency workers is increasing, and not just in the front line, as spending has reached over £2m a quarter.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about making the savings needed, and unfortunately the Liberal Democrats have chosen the wrong way. The previous Conservative administration protected frontline services by cutting waste and making efficiencies – all in the face of ever reducing Central Government funding. The Liberal Democrats, despite being handed more money from Government than the previous administration, have decided to spend on pet projects and back office staff while reducing residents’ services.
It's time for the Liberal Democrats to take ownership of the decisions they make. They are enacting a budget that they set. If they now find that they don’t have the money in their budget to maintain services, while inflation is falling, it is because they chose to underfund them. And they are now choosing to cut services in favour of their own priorities.
It didn’t have to be this way. In February, Conservative councillors proposed changes to the budget that would have reallocated spending away from unnecessary staffing costs, PR and ideological obsessions. This money could have gone into services like public bins, weekly waste collection, freezing car parking charges, and road repairs. Instead, the Liberal Democrats have cut public bins, are abolishing weekly waste collection, have doubled car parking charges, and are cutting the road repairs budget in real-terms.
The Liberal Democrats are consistently making the wrong choices, and residents are suffering as a result.
The previous Conservative administration delivered on a commitment to maintain and invest in frontline services, and if we were in charge of the Council, we would continue this as our number one priority.
I urge the Liberal Democrat leadership to follow our example.
Cllr Norman Jorgensen - Conservative lead spokesman for the Finance and Waste