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Spelthorne budget debate - Liberal Democrat Leaders speech

February 26, 2010 4:14 PM
Colin Strong

Cllr Colin Strong - Leader of the Liberal Democrat Opposition

Spelthorne's budget was presented to the Council meeting on 25th February. Below is the speech by Councillor Colin Strong, Liberal Democrat Leader of the Opposition.

Madam Mayor,

I have pleasure in responding to the Leader's speech formally moving the motion to set the Council Tax for the year 2010/2011.

It has been an eventful 12 months and, as usual, before dealing with the finance proposals I shall summarise the past year as well as looking ahead at forthcoming challenges.

There are unsung heroes around us all the time: people who stay in the background, yet who enable our community to function. Penny and Ron Jones from Sunbury are such heroes but unsung no longer.

For more than 30 years Penny and Ron have taken care of many vulnerable children through the County Council's fostering service. I congratulate them for being honoured with MBEs for their excellent work. They are a special couple who thoroughly deserve their honours.

Speaking of heroes congratulations to Team Spelthorne who for the second year running came top in the Surrey Youth games. Unlike the 2008 event 2009 saw Team Spelthorne share the Overall Borough Trophy with Guildford.

Let us send our good wishes for a hat-trick of wins for the games in June.

Twinning links are not usually controversial but, as we say, Spelthorne is different.

In late 2008 the ruling group announced they wished to twin the Council with Grand Port Savanne on the island of Mauritius.

Last May the Conservatives pressed ahead and voted to formally sign the twinning link. The Liberal Democrats voted against. The truth is that Spelthorne has little in common with a tropical island situated in the Indian Ocean some 6,000 miles away.

Today, I can reaffirm the pledge that an incoming Liberal Democrat administration would scrap the Mauritius twinning link.

Madam Mayor,

Spelthorne residents have been badly treated by this Labour government. None more so than with the appalling decision to cap the Surrey Police Council Tax.

The Surrey Police capping order was voted through Parliament last July.

The Conservative MP for Spelthorne failed to vote against the order. In fact not one Conservative MP voted against Labour's cuts. It was left to Liberal Democrat MPs to oppose this discredited Labour government.

What was the result of this capping?

It cost Surrey Police £75,000 to reimburse the Council's cost of processing the £130,000 Council Tax refund to local residents. A refund that amounted to just £3.24 for a Band D property.

This is a prime example of economic madness under Labour. First they take money away. Then you have to pay extra for the privilege.

Just imagine how £205,000 could be spent on policing within our Borough.

Now remove that sum and you will understand how Spelthorne is suffering under a Labour government.

To add insult to injury when 2 Conservative Councillors tabled a motion last July in support of our police force we expected a lively debate on the police cuts affecting our Borough. We did not expect for the motion to be withdrawn at the last moment.

Actions speak louder than words - Labour imposed cuts on our Borough and the Conservatives did nothing.

Planning has had a high profile in recent years but for all the wrong reasons.

Last August we had a meeting with the Chief Executive where we presented a number of cases where it was clear to us that there were serious issues with the way those planning applications had been dealt with.

At that meeting we called for a thorough investigation into Spelthorne's planning system. As a group we are appreciative that our call was followed through and we now await the final report.

The Lib Dems are a pro-active group. Last October we led a debate on climate change asking the Council to sign-up to the national 10:10 campaign. This would have resulted in the Borough committing itself to reducing its CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010.

The purpose of this campaign is to get people to make immediate energy savings and to focus attention on reducing energy usage permanently. To date over 100 local authorities have signed up.

Faced with a comprehensive Lib Dem motion Conservative Councillors ducked the issue, referring it to the nine members of the Cabinet who ultimately rejected the chance to join the 10:10 campaign.

Such a decision was not unexpected from those who support expansion at Heathrow.

Ashford College and its uncertain future continues to be at the top of the Liberal Democrat agenda.

The closure announcement last October was a shock to residents and students across our Borough. More shocking was the Conservative response. Sensing a re-development opportunity the Council moved very swiftly to produce a Planning Brief that would steer the type of development for the college site.

The Liberal Democrat view then, and now, is that our priority is to safeguard the College and not to tout the site to developers.

The Conservative leadership were in such a rush to approve the Planning Brief that they scheduled a Special cabinet for late November just 8 days before the usual monthly meeting.

As a former student at the College I was appalled by this turn of events. At the special meeting I spoke against the Planning Brief and was pleased when the Conservative cabinet members performed a spectacular U-turn.

Looking ahead we have other challenges that face us.

Airtrack still threatens Staines and Stanwell Moor. As a Borough we suffer pain but no gain from the current scheme. If Airtrack is to proceed we want the best possible outcome for our residents.

The London Irish proposals in Lower Sunbury are well known.

As I am not a member of the Planning committee I can freely state that I back the residents 100% in their opposition to both plans.

As Councillors we must make a stand against any loss of open space. These green areas help to protect our Borough from urban sprawl, enhance our environment and offer leisure activities to our residents.

All this could be lost forever.

Finally, the so-called "Eco-park". This is the County Council's grand plan for a dual energy-from-waste plant at Charlton tip.

At this time there are more questions than answers. Consequently we have serious concerns that Charlton is not a suitable site for importing waste from across the county and exporting electricity.

Budget 2010/11

I turn now to the finance proposals as shown in the Green Book.

The financial position we, as a Council, find ourselves in is due to four contributing factors.

Firstly, the Labour government has steadily under-funded the amount of grant that is paid to Spelthorne.

Secondly, the Conservative administration has consistently run a budget deficit for many years. In order to balance the books they bridge the deficit by selling off assets and running down the reserves. Just like Gordon Brown's government they too have failed to tackle their budget deficit.

Thirdly, the recession has led to historically low interest rates. Given that the Council is so reliant on the use of reserves, falls in interest rates greatly affect the ability to generate investment income and thus balance the books.

The final factor is the political call from Conservative Central Office asking all Conservative-run Councils to work towards a Council Tax freeze.

These four factors combine to explain why the Conservatives are proposing cuts to front-line services that we, as Liberal Democrats, will oppose.

It didn't have to be like this. We warned for years that being deep in the red was not sustainable.

In 2007 with reserves melting away the ruling group voted for a policy that set the minimum target level of reserves at £31 million. This was the figure that was deemed necessary. Today, total revenue reserves stand at around £12 million.

The Conservative failure for over 10 years to tackle the budget deficit has meant that the four factors mentioned earlier have hit hard.

Their proposals show they have been forced to cut the budget deficit from an original figure of £2 million in the current financial year to £1.1million for the year 2010/2011.

So, how have they achieved the reduction?

Partly by generating extra income but also by slashing jobs in the following areas: street cleansing, support services, building control, planning policy and planning development control.

The truth is that these front-line jobs that are due to be axed make a real difference to our community.

In my speech 3 years ago I remarked that residents were seeing the effects of years of Conservative mis-management. Since then the situation has got worse.

Residents are angry about our planning system.

Assets such as Day Centres have been sold. In Sunbury: replaced with 5-storey over-development. In Stanwell: standing idle.

Residents are worried at the loss of much valued open spaces.

Police funding is cut and only the Liberal Democrats stand up for Spelthorne.

And finally we have proposals that will slash Council services further.

This budget is bad for the residents of Spelthorne and we shall oppose the motion.