Fairness And Council Grants

Like all politicians, occasionally I get frustrated with stories in the local press. I’m sure most local journalists occasionally get frustrated with local politicians too! We have some excellent local reporters on the Advertiser and the Manchester Evening News, and it’s part of my job as a Councillor to take the rough press with the smooth. I try not to criticise the press in public – if there’s something I’m genuinely unhappy about I will have a quiet word – and I can only recall one occasion in six and a half years on the Council where I have done so. I have certainly never gone down the route that former Labour Councillor for Eccles Jane Murphy took, standing up in Full Council and suggesting that the Advertiser was such an awful rag that we needed to print Life In Salford every week!

This brings me to today’s front page splash in the Manchester Evening News. Now, I’m not going to go down the route that some others have done in criticising the MEN Group or their owners Trinity Mirror for publishing such a headline. They are a privately-run newspaper and they are as entitled to their opinion as anyone else. That is the whole point of a free press. However, I have every intention of joining the debate and explaining why I think that today’s editiorial is heading down the wrong track.

First of all, let’s be clear why these spending reductions are necessary: the catastrophic and unprecedented in peacetime state of the public finances bequeathed by the previous Labour Government.

Secondly, part of the problem with “cuts” stories is that they focus on the margins without looking at the bigger picture (the same goes for Council Tax increases, incidentally) so just for the record, here are those “unfair” 2011/12 grant settlements for selected authorities, per head of population:

Manchester: £739.93
Salford: £619.08
Trafford: £350.36
Stockport: £331.46
Dorset: £227.59
Surrey: £178.42
Wokingham: £141.86

For clarity, the figures for Dorset and Surrey are averages, as their two-tier Council structure means that each of their district Councils receive slightly different grants. Outside of inner London, only Liverpool and Knowsley receive more in formula grant than Manchester City Council does.

Now, just to be clear, it is absolutely right that deprived inner-city authorities receive considerably more money from the formula grant. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, our Council Tax base is lower, and secondly because the deprivation found in those authorities does lead to significant pressure on expenditure. With such a huge disparity in formula grant, can Manchester City Council really complain that the current situation is manifestly unfair?

Thirdly, despite the generous funding formula, there is no doubt that the spending reductions, necessary thanks to Labour’s catastrophic financial legacy, have presented our local Councils with significant challenges. The main reason, however, that Manchester City Council in particular is having to make such huge cuts is because of decades of overspending, inefficiency and poor management, and a failure to plan properly for cuts in spending that were coming even if Labour had been returned to power in Westminster.

To use one example, Manchester’s sickness rate is 12.99 shifts per staff member per annum – that’s nearly 340000 (!) lost shifts every year. The public sector average is around 9 shifts, the private sector average is about 6.5 and the rate for an operational firefighter in Greater Manchester is 4.98. How much money does this poor management cost the Manchester taxpayer every year?

We all want the best for Greater Manchester. I stood for election to put something back into my local community. It is possible, though, to stand up for our local areas without safeguarding the waste, bureaucracy and ineffiency of our Labour Councils.

Community Committee On Monday

The next meeting of the Walkden & Little Hulton Community Committee is on Monday (31st January) at St Paul’s Peel Church Hall on Manchester Road West in Little Hulton. The meeting starts at 6pm and all local residents are welcome to attend – it’s a great opportunity to question local Councillors and Council officers.

You can download the agenda here. Hope to see you there!

Sunday Service Extension Approved

I’m delighted that approval for the extension of the Sunday rail service through Walkden was given at GMITA’s Policy and Resources Committee meeting yesterday. The service has been a terrific success and the renewal of the Sunday trains is great news for commuters, leisure travellers and the local community as a whole. I’m really grateful to all the local people who have used the new service and especially to Friends of Walkden Station for their continued hard work.

I hope that – looking forward – the service can be written into the Northern Rail franchise agreement when it comes up for renewal, so that our Sunday trains can continue permanently. For now, it’s excellent news that these valuable rail connections are safe for 2011/12.

Fire Service Corporate Plan – Your Comments Wanted

The consultation period on the “Corporate Plan” for the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service runs until Friday 4th February.

The draft Corporate Plan provides information about how the Service will continue to serve the people of Greater Manchester, providing them with the best emergency response service possible and continuing the excellent preventative work which has seen the number of incidents fall considerably over recent years.

All local residents are encouraged to make a response to the Corporate Plan consultation – please visit the GMFRS website for more information, where you can download the full document or summary document, view some frequently asked questions, and find out how to respond to the consultation.

GMITA Should Approve Walkden Sunday Service Renewal

On Friday there is a meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee of the Transport Authority, and amongst the agenda items is a proposal to extend the funding for the Sunday services through Walkden station for a further year.

The Sunday trains have proved to be a phenomenal success; they are frequently full and almost always busy. Much of the credit must go to the Friends of Walkden Station who pushed tirelessly for the new service to be introduced and have promoted the new trains relentlessly, but it has been great to see local residents in Walkden and the surrounding areas (plus the other stations along the “Atherton line”) turn out in their thousands to use the new service.

The officer recommendation at the meeting on Friday is to approve the proposal. I strongly urge all the Councillors on the Committee to support this important new local transport link and vote to continue the funding.

Council Meeting on Wednesday

The next full Council meeting is coming up on Wednesday. It’s a relatively short agenda so we ought to be finished by lunchtime, but our Council meetings seem to have an uncanny knack of expanding to fill the time allowed, so I’m not holding my breath. We have some very difficult decisions to make in the next few months as a Council, but these would have been so much easier but for the catastrophic economic legacy of the previous Labour Government and the failure of the Council locally to prepare for difficult days ahead.

As a Conservative opposition, we have called for many years for the Council to put something back into reserves and to have a thorough review of the efficiency of the Council. Sadly, the reserves were run down (and more money borrowed) by the Council’s Labour leaders and whilst the settlement is certainly challenging, had the Council been on a firm financial footing the budget negotiations that are currently taking place would have been considerably easier.