The many hundreds of hours that have gone into formulating the Cabinet’s budget proposals for 2011-12 have undoubtedly been the most difficult and challenging I have encountered during my time in office.
I have written at least a dozen columns over the last year about the unfairness of the cuts that are being imposed on us by the Government and I could easily write a dozen more.
I have written to the Secretary of State three times, not only arguing about the raw deal that we are getting in Hartlepool, but also offering viable alternatives that would give us at least a bit more parity with the rest of the country.
As I suspected, it has been a pointless exercise because the Government is hell bent on decimating local government and do not appear to care one iota about the impact these imposed cuts are to have at a local level.
That leaves us to pick through the final settlements and ascertain exactly what the impact will be for Hartlepool.
The reality is that we are losing more than £14million in funding compared to what we have this year. On top of that, Hartlepool has had more than £100million taken away from the Building Schools for the Future programme, £450million for a new hospital and tens of millions in funding for housing market renewal programs.
The North-East and Hartlepool in particular is heavily reliant on the public sector and especially the local authority.
Not only is the council the town’s biggest employer, we also provide vital services for people who need it most, living in some of the most deprived areas in the country.
The cuts to the public sector will have an enormous knock-on effect for the voluntary and community sector on which the town is also heavily reliant.
Many jobs will be lost here also.
The Government seems to think that the private sector will take up the slack and absorb the impact of these cuts and job losses in the public sector.
I’m not sure which planet the person who thought this would work lives on but I can guarantee these cuts will have the opposite impact on the private sector in Hartlepool.
Many small local firms rely heavily on the public sector for work and contracts and these will diminish, leaving businesses having to shed jobs as well. With the banks not lending to businesses, then I have no idea how the private sector is supposed to grow.
The Cabinet had already embarked on a program of business transformation and efficiencies long before this Government came to power, in order to make some of the savings we knew would be required in any case.
This has been a challenging process in itself and these cuts left us with a further deficit of more than £5.6million which has to be found through cuts to services. Most of these proposals have been well documented in the Mail over the past few months and have been subject to hours of consultation and scrutiny through the council’s scrutiny co-ordinating committee.
Throughout the whole process, the Cabinet has always been open to alternative suggestions and ideas to find the required amount of savings and last week, the Labour group put forward a number of of such suggestions which particularly focused on protecting libraries, community centres and services delivered by the voluntary and community sector.
Young people at Seaton youth club also came forward with an idea of preserving their service. Cabinet was very happy to incorporate these suggestions into our final budget proposals.
As we move into austere times, the council will be moving towards commissioning services from the voluntary sector rather than having pots of funding that can be applied for by organisations. It therefore makes sense to ensure we get this transition right and give ample support to community sector organisations to move to this new way of working.
The last thing any of us want to do is to close community centres and libraries but the scope to find the required amount of savings falls mainly on our none statutory services and that inevitably leads to a threat on our community facilities.
If David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea is to work, it would mean hundreds of local people giving up their time for free to run these facilities. This army of volunteers will never materialise but what we do have in Hartlepool is a number of very capable organisations who would be interested in running the facilities.
Keeping libraries and community centres open for a few more months will give us time to do a proper sweep of the voluntary sector regarding all our community facilities and allow us to gauge the level of interest in each building.
We would then look at an open tendering exercise with a view to transferring the assets over to the community. Where the money to run them will come from is another problem and one which will be ironed out during that process.
One of the first statements this Government made about local government was that we will have a lot more freedom and flexibility to make our own financial decisions.
What this really meant is that they will stem our flows of funding but leave the difficult decisions on where the cuts will be to us therefore exonerating them from any responsibility for the loss of services.
What they also have done quite cleverly is to force local authorities to freeze council tax by subsidising us the equivalent of a rise of 2.5 per cent, hinting that the capping level will be the same.
A freeze in council tax is great for us residents on the face of things and I’ve absolutely no doubt that the Government will be claiming all the credit for the freeze in months to come.
If we really had the freedom to govern our own finances however, it would be nice to at least have had the opportunity to ask the question to the public whether they were happy to pay a few more pence per week in order to save dial-a-ride or other community services.
The budget proposals will now go before full council tomorrow night where I sincerely hope every councillor will give their support and, in doing so, support Hartlepool through these difficult times.
The going will be much, much tougher next year and for the years after that and I believe we have to adopt a siege mentality against a Government that is actively trying to destroy areas like Hartlepool. The town has suffered times of hardship before and we have come through it stronger and more resolute and a better place because of it.
Hartlepool and our people need to be stronger than ever and stand up to this Government by showing them that we won’t be deterred by their cuts and they won’t stop Hartlepool from continuing to grow and flourish.
Councillors have the chance to show their strength tomorrow by supporting the Cabinet proposals.