Thursday, 27 November 2008

Last night I went to see the Everyman’s production of King Lear. I shall not bore you with a review suffice to say that the play is an awful warning about the consequences when politics break down.
Last night Pete Postlethwaite gave a powerful and convincing performance of a deranged man and got a standing ovation-which when you consider that the play finished after 11 o’clock and all the bus pass holders were panicking about getting home -was a measure of how good the performance was.

Now I don’t want to press the analogy too far but I did get to pondering whether Sefton was about to enter an ungovernable phase. I’m not suggesting the abdicating King will go mad or that the failure to divide the power between the three legitimate parties would result in war and bloodshed (in last nights production we had video images of battles projected and commandos with sub machine guns stalking the theatre) but just as Regan and Gonderil ganged up against their sister Cordelia, I did wonder whether Labour and Tories would make common cause at the cabinet this morning. (I’ll allow you decide which is Regan (now there’s a name to conjure with), who helped gauge out the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes because she thought he had leaked some information)

To put the matter in context I should say that the big issue before us at present is the setting of the council tax. In truth there is very little room for manoeuvre. The government has declared that they will ‘cap’ council tax rises at 5%. (Yes this is the Labour Party that ranted and raved about the last Tory Government capping local government spending). Now if we break that down a bit we know that the bodies like the police, fire, waste disposal etc have already agree to rises equal to about 2%, which means Sefton cannot agree to spending which would result in a rise of more than 3%. Broadly, with good will, that is achievable. The question is whether there is goodwill.

Last year the three parties on our council had reviewed the departments’ proposals for savings and jointly agreed a fair number. Indeed by November we had gone over the matter three times and made substantial progress on each occasion. I am not suggesting that we all agreed on everything, we did not. Much of the ill will that exists in the council today stems from our group’s decision to support a proposal from the Chief Exec to cull a number of senior posts.
This suggestion arose because the council had agreed to establish a separate company-New Direction-to be a Social Services provider and set up a Housing Association-One Vision-to look after our housing stock. These were unanimous decisions of the council. It followed that these two independent bodies were no tied in to using the councils central services-lawyers, HR, estates etc and may well seek them elsewhere for less money. The situation was compounded because the councils ‘vision’ document Sefton 2010 had gone on to propose seeking partners to deliver a range of council services including finance and technical services. The council has adopted that policy-again unanimously. The consequence of those policies is that we needed to slim down further the central bureaucracy of the council.

I now come to the point where WW3 broke out. Normally you can rely on a good Tory to cut bureaucrats jobs-especially when the Chief Exec is telling them that the posts are superfluous. In fact the usual problem is restraining them cutting posts too enthusiastically. Not on this occasion. This led to an ugly council meeting when the Labour and Tories thought they had made the Chief Exec redundant (equivalent to gauging out Gloucester’s eyes?). When after much legal too-ing and fro-ing the whole thing was deemed illegal Labour and Tories ganged up to prevent the reduction of high paid staff. There was much bad blood and many accusations of information being leaked to the media. In fact a quiet and calm consideration of the situation would have quickly revealed that most of the information was already in the public domain and the rest could easily be deduced by anyone with an ounce experience. In truth, from our side if we were to have leaked a document the key one we would have chosen would have been the QC’s opinion about the illegality of the Labour and Tory joint decision to make the CEO redundant. It is dynamite revealing as it does the full depth of their incompetence and several other things I am constrained in writing about.

Now I am not surprised at Bootle Labour party taking that decision. Unlike the Labour government and Labour controlled councils who regularly recognize the economic reality and make people redundant when the need for their jobs disappears, our lot cling longingly to the Labour mantra from the years of their national irrelevance; ‘no redundancies here’.

The big question is; why did the Tories go along with Labour? We have never had an explanation. Cllr Porter promised us one but it never materialized. We found that strange as she usually finds no difficulty getting her views into print. Maybe they are embarrassed? The most popular suggestion is that the Tory leadership makes decisions on the basis of personality-who they like or who they don’t like. It is beyond me and I’ve never been offered a rational explanation.

Anyway back to the budget process this year. Labour has not engaged. Their Leader Peter Dowd will deny that with all the bluster and annoyance that he can muster. But the facts remain he has the same opportunity as everyone else to seek briefings from officers. He has received the same paper work. He maybe personally unavailable but he has colleagues who, one assumes, have the confidence of the Labour group. Then today we had an amazing performance which fooled no one. He picked on individual savings and tried to explain why it wouldn’t work. Please bear in mind that way are doing he easy bit at present. These are not ‘tough cuts’ like the one being proposed by the Labour Party in the Wirral or Salford. The funny bit-and we all tried not to laugh- was when he tried to justify his reluctance to engage by drawing our attention to that particular budget line which he claimed could not be implemented until it had been subjected to consultation. Yes, but unless we have a proposal how do we meaningfully consult? The truth was starkly obvious. The budget decisions required to limit the council tax rise to the level demanded by the Labour Government frightens the Bootle Labour councillors. How on earth are they going to cope next year when their government has made it clear that they expect the council tax rise to be ‘substantially’ lower than this year?

Anyway we did not become ungovernable today. Common sense prevailed and the Tories and us signed up for a number of ‘uncontroversial’ savings. I think at this time with the credit crunch and a recession frightening many people-especially many elderly folk living on fixed incomes- we have a responsibility to keep the tax as low as we credibly can. If we can do that without the political carnage so graphically portrayed in the final scene of last night’s King Lear, we will have done well.