I hope everyone will be able to join the national Day of reflection that is planned for Noon on 23rd March. This is exactly one year after the first lockdown. It is to provide people across our area and the country with an opportunity to remember family, friends and others who have died, or been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 Pandemic. It not only includes people who had Covid-19, but all other people who suffered as well.
I should like to thank all the WBC officers and staff who have been actively involved with dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic in our Borough. I should in particular like to thank staff in Adult Social Services and Children’s Services as well as all those who were seconded onto Covid-19 duties. Our thanks also go to the voluntary sector, who played a pivotal role in delivering much needed food, prescriptions and other help to our residents during the Pandemic.
There is one area I have mentioned before, but I want to restate here. That is the WBC Protocol developed last April by the Director of Adult Social Care (Matt Pope) in conjunction with other senior officers to prevent patients being discharged from our local Hospitals into Care Homes without being clear of Covid-19, this is something that I believe has saved many lives. Not just our local people, but across the Country. I believe WBC was the first authority in the Country to produce such a protocol. It was followed by many other local authorities shortly afterwards. This was nearly 2 weeks before the Government changed the policy to discharge people from Hospitals with only 2 hours-notice without any testing. I believe this needs national recognition and is in my view one of the most significant actions taken by WBC in the time I have been on the Council.
I should also like to thank the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council and senior officers for the regular briefings that have been given to all Party Leaders since last March.
I now turn to the Budget. This is a Conservative Budget, they have the majority on the Council at the moment and it will be the budget that will be approved as a result. However should there be a change of Administration this May, then we (The Liberal Democrats) would have to use this budget as a starting point. We however have a different set of priorities and as a result do not support all aspects of this budget. One area of concern is that it comes across as being a Business as usual Budget rather than one that provides a clear route to recovery once the Pandemic has subsided. This in my view shows a lack of strategic thinking and vision by the Conservatives.
I should also like to highlight that the Adult Social Care element of the Council Tax will now be 9% of the overall Council Tax collected. This represents somewhere between £150 & £300 of your annual Council Tax. The Liberal Democrats believe this should only be a short term measure, and that a nationally agreed means of financing adult social care needs to be developed for the future.
During the last year the Council has lost significant income, including from Leisure services where a loss of around £1.7- £2M has been forecast, plus there are others, as many services have been closed and in addition it has had additional costs, especially associated with support for Covid-19 issues. That is why the level of borrowing (or debt) incurred by the Council is so important. I am sure we all remember large well-known companies financially overstretching themselves, often with unfortunate outcomes. It is the role of Councillors to ensure that we do not follow the same path as some of these now extinct companies.
Throughout the year the Government has provided the Council with financial support, including grants for local businesses, care homes and to cover some of the losses in income due to the Pandemic. I applaud the flexibility shown by the Council officers in the discretion taken in enabling local businesses to receive at least some financial support, when initially they were not eligible.
We need to remember that many people will still have financial problems for a considerable while, even as things improve. Increased unemployment is forecast, and many local businesses will struggle to get going again, and unfortunately some that will not have made it through the pandemic. The Council needs to continue to assist in these areas as best it can and to encourage local people to support our local businesses again. This will not be easy to achieve. We believe that there needs to be a structured Recovery Plan developed to ensure the Council is best placed to help. I do not see sufficient evidence of this happening in this Conservative Budget.
When we are in control we would focus on:
o Continue to provide what support we can to our local businesses, plus when it can happen encourage our local residents to support our local shops, leisure facilities, libraries, Theatres and other activities within the Borough again. They will need our help. We would encourage special events across the Borough.
o Mental Health and Wellbeing will be a priority at all ages, but especially for our children.
o Ensuring sufficient support is provided to assist with the increasing levels of Domestic Abuse that have occurred during the Pandemic. This will be one of those areas we would urgently address. This is particularly significant with the introduction of the Domestic Abuse Bill 2020, which is expected to gain ascent in April.
o Continue to provide what financial support it can to help our local residents who still have financial problems as a result of the Pandemic. This will include help with Council Tax deferred payments, use of the Council Tax Reduction scheme, plus help with rent where WBC is the landlord. We shall investigate what other activities can be developed to assist in this area.
o In time we would reopen those WBC services that have been closed throughout the duration.
o Throughout 2021 we would put in place actions to change the culture of the Council, from its current “We know best, arrogant attitude to residents”, to one where the local residents are at the centre of all actions of the Council. This includes greater openness, and a willingness to admit its mistakes when they occur, instead of hiding behind such statements as “it was perfectly legal”.
During the autumn the subject of the Council’s debt raised its head. On one occasion this subject was raised during a Full Council Meeting. The discussion since then makes interesting reading. Back then the Tories were talking of the debt being £7.52 per resident per annum, then briefly there was mention just before Christmas of a figure around £100Mand then at the 28th January 2021 Executive meeting there was mention of a figure of £400M(I suggest people watch the video of that meeting). However this is only the start. Slowly we are beginning to extract the real level of debt (or total borrowing) incurred by this arrogant, deceitful Conservative administration. Until now they have denied there was any debt (my comments on debt were ignored for several years), now it is being extracted tooth by tooth from them. This is shameful as they have tried to hide this from our local residents. The Conservatives have mortgaged the Council’s future for many years to come. Residents need to realise that they are the “last resort” for the majority of the financial shortfall, should that occur, at some point in the future.
Interest rates are currently low, but they will not remain that way for ever. The Council will now be burdened by this huge debt for many years to come and as a result the Council will have to generate additional income every year, just to stand still, and who could end up paying?
Local Residents would have to pay more for services, and some services may end up being cut, or removed to make ends meet. This has been an appalling way to behave and it is our job (the Liberal Democrats) to let everyone know what legacy the Tories are leaving.
No matter what mess you leave us, we will deal with it!!
On the capital programme there is one issue I should like to mention. I was extremely pleased to see the planning application for the new library and community hub in Twyford was recently approved. It is also pleasing for find that phase 1 of the project (£740k) has already been approved. Phase 2 is not financially supported by WBC. Should the Liberal Democrats be in control we see no reason why WBC could not also assist with at least part funding Phase 2 of this much delayed and wanted local community facilityand one the local Liberal Democrats have pressed for 20 years.
Finally - Lead Members from the Liberal Democrat team will now further provide more detailed views on the Budget as well as outlining our priorities for the Council when we are in control.