Mayor - Facing up to our biggest test

I WOULD like to offer my very best wishes to everyone for the Christmas period.

I hope you all get time to relax and enjoy the festivities and spend plenty of time with your friends and families. Merry Christmas to everyone.

My prediction the Government wouldn’t release the details of the grant settlements for councils until Christmas Eve did not quite come to fruition but it wasn’t far off.

The announcements came last week and they certainly didn’t bring with them any Christmas cheer for Hartlepool.

The simple fact is the Government seems hell bent on decimating the support it gives to areas that are in most need.

It is no secret places like Hartlepool have high levels of deprivation and rely heavily on support and services from the local authority who, in turn, rely on financial support from the Government.

It is all well and good for ministers to make headline-grabbing statements about people having to get off their backsides and find a job or about there being too much wastage in the public sector and councils should be doing more for less. But the reality is Hartlepool Borough Council has always been very efficient and, because of our size, has always provided much more for less.

Not only that, we have always provided very good services, many of which are specifically targeted to either the areas or the people that need them most.

A blind man can see how far the town has come over the last decade and more and I’m not just talking about bricks and mortar.

The culture of the town has changed. There are many more opportunities for people to work, to volunteer, to learn and to generally have a better life.

It is not all down to the council, not in the slightest, but council funding and government funding has played a huge part in the renaissance of the town and I fear the withdrawal of huge chunks of this funding will set the town back by more than a decade.

Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Local Government, seems to have created a new phrase and is now talking about reductions in councils’ “spending power” and the figures released last week show Hartlepool’s’ spending power to have been reduced by 8.9 per cent.

The “spending power” concept is actually smoke and mirrors to hide the true extent of the grant cuts as it lumps in council tax income and health funding the Council receives to lessen the percentage value of the actual cuts to core funding.

The reality is our grant cut is 12 per cent this year and nine per cent next.

It has been partly mitigated by a one-off transitional grant of £1.9m.

But this only serves to potentially delay the cuts and create a bigger problem next year.

Whichever way you look at it, Hartlepool’s proportion of the cuts is not fair and we are being hit far harder than most other places.

Our cut in “spending power” is the maximum 8.9 per cent which equates to £10.32m.

Mr Pickles’s own constituency, Essex County Council with a population of more than 1.2 million, has had its spending power cut by just 1.3 per cent or £12.98m.

Hampshire has been cut by 0.95 per cent (£7.79m) and Surrey, probably the most well-off area in the country, has had its spending power cut by 0.31 per cent (£2.54m.)

How on earth can a government minister justify those figures? It is an absolute disgrace.

Setting next year’s budget and looking at our budgets in the following years is certainly the most difficult thing I have ever had to face during my time in office and I know all other elected members realise that there are going to have to be some extremely difficult and unpopular decisions to be made over the next few months.

I have been harping on about this for some time now but the reality is now upon us and I’m pleased that the first round of consultation through scrutiny has produced some mature discussions and sensible suggestions.

With the scaling back and stopping of some services, it is inevitable that there will be job losses.

Everything possible is being done to mitigate this impact by looking at agency staff, managing vacancies and redeployment but I’m sorry to say that around 150 people will unfortunately lose their jobs.

The sad fact is that the majority of these people will be Hartlepool residents doing a job they enjoy and making a difference to the town as a whole.

It is also inevitable that many of these people will be known to councillors and myself.

The very size and nature of the council and the town means that everyone knows everyone else anyway and it makes it especially hard having to make people redundant who you have a good working relationship with, are perhaps even friends with, or, in my case, married to.

The public sector, and council workers in particular, have come in for a hammering by the Government and some parts of the national press over the last few months.

The criticism which was a led up to the cuts has had a detrimental effect on morale and huge credit must go to Hartlepool Borough Council staff that have carried on regardless and continued to provide an excellent service.

We will be responding to the Government’s funding proposals in the strongest way and I believe we have to almost create a siege mentality.

As a town we have always stood up to be counted in the face of adversity and these next two years could well be our toughest test yet.

It would be great if we could also get the general support of the public in these difficult times.

The easiest thing would be for people to sit back and criticise every decision that comes about. But I would suggest that in any other town, if the largest employer suffered many job losses as a result of Government decisions, the town would rally round and support that employer.

This is no different. Hartlepool Borough Council needs the people of this town now just as much as the people of the town need Hartlepool Borough Council.

Together we can fight this Government and what it is trying to do to us and, more importantly, ensure Hartlepool continues to develop and grow and present people a better quality of life no matter who is pulling the strings in Whitehall.