Thursday was a busy day with cabinet in the morning, a briefing on the local government settlement and a rowdy fully council in the evening.
The scene was set in the morning. Although Labour hold 40% of the seats in Sefton's all-Party Cabinet and have a leader who is Deputy Leader of Sefton Council , it was our clear impression that Labour were disengaging from the process-opposing the cost savings that were proposed and putting forward no alternative. The Tories voted throughout and broadly speaking took the maximum cut available-which given we have to find £44m is not an untenable position. It led to some fascinating internal conflicts. I want to just report a couple so you get the flavour.
Paula Parry, the Tory leader, has clearly decided that we have got to get on and deal with the programme of reductions. I genuinely believe that she understand that any procrastination will lead to the council having to make extra reductions and hence extra job losses and service reduction. I have my differences with Mrs Parry but she has been consistent and reliable through the period and has not sought to duck the issue. Most importantly she has not spoken with a forked tongue. At no time has she tried to suggest or imply that she has not taken tough and difficult decisions. You may argue with that approach but you have to respect it.
Let me explore a couple of the minor proposals to illustrate this. Firstly the mobile library; in advance of the thorough review of the Library service which is being undertaken it was suggested that the mobile Library should be cut. My colleagues and I felt that we would rather wait for the review which reports early in the new year because it occurred to us that if any libraries were shut the mobile library may have a role in providing a comprehensive service. The problem was that the lease for the vehicle was up and we were being asked to enter into a new 5 year agreement. Mrs Parry and Mrs Porter (the two Tories) voted to shut the mobile library. We voted against and asked the CEO to see if she could 'roll over' the contract for a shorter period to allow the full review to be undertaken. But no, Mrs Parry and Mrs Porter stuck to there guns. There was no decision as Lab voted against both. It was fascinating to see Mrs Porter VOTE TO CLOSE the mobile Library but then, seemingly oblivious to how she had voted, to speak in favour of the proposition she had voted against! The irony is that not so long ago Mrs Porter was putting forward the idea of the mobile Library as being an acceptable alternative for Southport Town Centre for the nearly 3 years in which the Lord Street Library will be closed.
Frankly from then on it got a little embarrassing. We got to the item of reducing the bedding plants in the borough . We were faced with two options: firstly an across the board cut of 50% and secondly preserving the bedding in the 'classic resort' areas of Southport. True to form the Tories voted to cut the maximum on offer. It will escape nobodies notice that is you reduce the number of displays you will need less plants.
This brings us to the thorny issue of the nursery at Botanic Gardens who produce some of the plants. The option to reduce the number of plants we require impacts on the viability of the nursery. At the last cabinet meeting Mrs Porter and Mrs Parry voted to close the nursery. I was not surprised by that decision. Our advice is that the unit cost of the plants they produce is very high. Some people have sought to challenge that advice. The figures are in the public domain. Nobody has produced any evidence to cabinet that the figures are not robust. I asked again on Thursday about the figures. The officers stand by them. They too have received no credible challenge to their calculations. Our chief exec is a qualified accountant, other fully qualified staff have reviewed the figures and chartered accountants who are not officers have crawled all over them. They stack up. Even after voting to close the Nursery Mrs Porter has sought to suggest that the figures are wrong and that in effect Mrs Carney our CEO has misled councillors. What is even more bizarre is that in the evening at full council Mrs Porter voted again to agree the closure of the nursery. There was a named vote. The record will clearly show how she voted. She did not move an amendment, Lots of other people did. She did not speak in the debate at all. So why I wonder has she a letter in the Southport Visiter praising the nursery men and concluding: 'Do we really want to loose their expertise.?' Well apparently she does as she has twice voted in recorded votes to shut down the nursery.-(oh, and don't forget she has also voted to reduce the number of flowers we should buy thus further reducing demand for the nurseries and inevitably increasing the unit costs)
It is with great regret that the Lib Dems on Cabinet concluded that in its present financial situation the Council finds itself in the nursery is not affordable and therefore throughout this debate I and the Lib Dems have promoted the idea that some of the activities that the council no longer has the money to support could be taken over by the workers and run by them independently of the council.
It is proper to report that Peter Dowd the Labour leader has supported me in this policy. I raised it at the previous cabinet meeting but it was not mentioned in the minutes. Peter proposed a form of words to be added to the minutes to express the cabinets support for this policy. In relation to the Nursery I explicitly asked the CEO that this option should be pursued with the staff and they should be directed to the various independent agencies that can give help and support in business start ups. I am assured that this will be done.
I further asked if there was enough time for the staff to fully explore that option before the saving was harvested. Mrs Carney said that if more time was need to conclude a workers buy out/social enterprise take over she would return to cabinet to request a delay. For our part we indicated that if extra time was needed to establish the new enterprise we would wish to grant it.
I ought to add that the wonderful gardens in Southport which every summer are a delight and a matter of pride to the town are not under threat. Sadly some folk have tried to suggest that they are.