Liberal Democrats financial vision for Newcastle

11 Mar 2023

At the recent budget meeting, Councillor Colin Ferguson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on Newcastle City Council set out our financial vision for our city.

He challenged the ruling Labour group to make the decisions necesarry to safeguard our city and its residents in these uncertain times.  


The Liberal Democrats budget amendments include taking greater action on meeting the council’s green agenda by turning the current Climate Change Committee into a full scrutiny committee of the council   Cllr Ferguson's colleague Lib Dem Financial spokesperson Phil Hall told us, “it is time to get serious on climate change.  We have had this talking shop for a few years now.  It is time for the talking to stop and action to start.”  Other amendments go further as Cllr Hall explains, “We plan to beef up the bikeability programme to promote active travel, and working on workplace behaviour to ensure energy is saved on a daily basis. Labour is not taking active travel seriously, as we can see with the climb down on Gosforth High Street with priority being given to buses.  We are also committed to get more trees planted.”

Councillor Ferguson said, “What is clear with Labour is that they have no real ideas for our city.  They are putting up council tax but we believe there should be no charges without a vision. We believe we have that vision for a cleaner, greener, and most importantly, well-run city.”


Here is Councillors Ferguson's budget speech.......

Just before Christmas, during the cold snap, a resident rings me. “I’m sat on the floor of the kitchen,” he tells me, “with the oven door open and the oven on, because my heating’s broken and I can’t get anyone out to fix it.” Despite being on the priority repairs list, he waits 36 hours for a repair because there’s only one emergency call out heating engineer working in the City.


Over the summer, I stand with a woman and her daughter in a play park. The rubber on the ground is peeling and some of the equipment has been out of action for months. “I’ve offered to contribute some of my own money and help with crowdfunding,” she says, “but they’ve stopped returning my calls.”


A resident calls me. She explains she had a serious fall in the street due to defective paving. She has called the Council to try and get it fixed, with no luck getting through. “I don’t want anything for me,” she says, “I just want to make sure other people don’t fall like I did.” It takes me stepping before a repair is undertaken. 


And these are just the stories shared with me. My colleagues have others, as I’m sure we all do from across the chamber: residents stuck inside because the lift in their block isn’t working; people with disabilities unable to fill in blue badge applications because of an unmet accessibility need, being told simply to find someone else to help; antisocial behaviour left unchecked, even when the perpetrators are known.


And in the midst of it all, spiralling costs of heating and eating, rent hikes in the social and private sectors, longer wait times and poorer outcomes in vital services. This is the reality of life, today, for many people in our City.


So where to point the gnarled finger of blame?


On many issues, the problems are national, and the Tories must take their share of the blame. The Government is on the hook of fantasy politics, desperately trying to keep the sputtering flame of their leadership of the country alight by chopping and changing leaders with the seasons. They are a triumph of ideology based politics over evidence based policy making: undoubtedly flashy and exciting, but like any sugar rush, always accompanied by a crash.


Not that I’m particularly convinced by Sir Keir’s slogan-by-focus-group approach, either, it must be said, although I recognise from the polls that voters will back any seemingly safe harbour in a storm.


So the national context matters: constrained funding, an over-reliance on unreformed council tax and business rates, piecemeal grant funding coming in off the back of competitive bidding. All of this makes the job of local government harder.


It makes it harder to respond to pressure in the SEN Transport provider market, or to prioritise capital investment, or to grapple with increased pressure in social care


I know you think there’s a “but” coming. There’s not.


However, responsibility and accountability go hand in hand. However much I might wish it were otherwise, Labour are in control in this City. Whether it be the Council administration, the invisible Mayor or the ever present Police and Crime Commissioner, Labour have their hands on the levers. And every single one of them were elected on the basis of manifestos that promised to do things, not make excuses.


We’ve had nearly a year of the spruced up shopfront of this Labour Group, but residents tell me time and again that they’re still selling the same old stuff.


The Budget Proposals


Take the budget put in front of us this year. It’s the same format, the same salami-slicing approach, and a big gap where Year Two and Three proposals should be. We have gone through a consultation process that has changed nothing.


I have argued since I first entered the chamber that this Council needs a proper strategy, a compelling vision, and a clear performance management framework to see it delivered. But the allergy to these simple foundational mechanisms has left us high and dry. As a result, the budget we’re faced with includes, by any reasonable estimation, £8.9m of savings- almost 40% of the total- which appear to be technical fixes rather than transformational projects.


I know it takes time to turn a tanker, and I know members opposite recognise that, too. But this Council can spend all the money it wants, but unless Labour says what they’re going to deliver, and then delivers what they say they’re going to deliver, when they say they’re going to deliver it, residents will be unimpressed. And residents are unimpressed.


The ambition for the last decade appears to have been to show how difficult Newcastle has it, so that the Parliamentary Labour Party can come galloping over the hill like the Riders of Rohan and save the day. So instead of working to support Newcastle to be the best it can be, we’ve been used as a test case by friendly journalists in London fed lines about how bad the nasty Tory Government makes it for the North.


I think the Group opposite knows that, and has belatedly had a spat in an effort to change things. But there still remains the belief that someone can wave a magic wand and make it all better. The Tories have been a disaster for the North, and a disaster for Newcastle, but this budget, and future budgets, have to face up to the new reality: a new local government model that doesn’t rely on the funding streams of the past.


So we need more transformation of statutory services; greater investment in early intervention to bring down costs elsewhere; sensible leveraging of capital investment, tied into a Regional strategy, that boosts the economy for everyone and reduces the need for financial support for Council Tax and social rents.


We need clear, minimum service standards that restore public confidence and a strategy for improving the whole of the public realm, not just in the City Centre; we need collaboration between and across the local authorities of the North East, particularly if we’re to have a new combined authority in the near future, not parochial thinking that ends at a local authority boundary line.


All of these need a ground up rebuilding of the budget, beyond what can be simply amended in a single year.


And whilst we’re at all of that, we need to listen to and engage with our residents. We need to pay attention to what they’re saying, to respond, and to make them feel valued. Because they don’t feel valued and listened to right now, despite what’s said here. They feel the Council does things to them, not with them, where change is driven punitively instead of through positive encouragement.


I worry about the number of conversations on the doorsteps I’m having these days where people say to me: “what’s the point? No-one ever listens to us, anyway. They’ll just do what they want. I might not even vote.”


Something needs to change.


Our Amendments


Lord Mayor, I want to turn to our amendments. My colleagues in the Opposition will speak in more detail on each amendment shortly, but for now, Lord Mayor, allow me to offer a short summary.


Our amendments show that a costed alternative is possible. The comfortable narrative that Labour’s budget is forced is false. Other options are available.


On the growth funding for trees, we propose a minor amendment that preserves vital work on risk management, still recruits specialist staff, and provides a small amount of funding for planting “hard to place or replace” trees- exactly those that residents across the City want to see on their streets. And for that, funding is freed up for other changes.


We can build up the capacity of our Climate Change Committee, providing real depth and input into the Council’s drive to achieve Net Zero. Fresh ideas, support and challenge are there for the taking, instead of a toothless talking shop.


Free blue badge parking is a possibility, and should never have been cut. It’s a minor saving, easily reversed, if this Administration wants to show it really supports people with disabilities.


We don’t need to get rid of Bikeability. We are deeply sceptical of the Administration’s commitment to supporting active travel. We have schemes going in now that had their roots in decisions made years ago, but more recent progress is… patchy. This amendment offers a simple step to reassure residents of this City that the Administration still cares.


The Great North CIty Fund is a regular target of mine, I’ll acknowledge, but to be clear: for several years, I’ve been told it’s a finite fund and it’s nearly done. And every year, it’s still there, with a wee bit of money taken out, and a wee bit more money put in. There are other sources of funding for the sorts of thing the Great North City Fund supports.


There is not an embarrassment of riches for the voluntary sector. And yet, the voluntary sector can help with so many aspects of the Council delivery. The voluntary sector is a vital partner: let’s support it more.


On Allendale Road, let’s not all pretend that there aren’t mixed feelings about the closure of this facility. We’ve seen it before: Brunswick Household Waste Recycling Centre was for the chop- totally unviable, had to go, no hope of keeping it open. Well, look at that: we said it should be kept open so that an options analysis could be undertaken, and here it is, still open! So let’s make sure all options have been considered for Allendale Road, because it seems to me that not all stakeholders are convinced.


And yes, Lord Mayor, I recognise that we’re bringing back our old favourite, the Workplace Parking Levy. Just earlier today, Cllr Cookson shared with me an article that starts: “The UK’s leading sustainable transport campaign group, Campaign for Better Transport, has visited Nottingham… to see for itself how the country’s only Workplace Parking Levy has revolutionised how people travel around the City.”


It might take three years to implement, but the benefits could be transformational. Oh, if only Labour had been bold enough to have the vision to back us years ago, we could be implementing it right now! As it is, we’ll probably have to wait a few years from now if we agree it tonight. Still, the Tyne Bridge would be grateful of a timeline as quick as that, eh!


And finally, two amendments that recognise the pressure of inflation on both residents and the Council.


Firstly, a written commitment to using funding coming into the Council to provide a rebate on Council Tax for those in receipt of Council Tax Support and to commit to a year’s worth of holiday meals vouchers. Residents, families, individuals: they want certainty and comfort, and this is a vital way to do it. We need to put a protective arm around the people of our City, go further on cost of living and see our people through this most challenging of times. Holiday hunger is a scourge.


Secondly, a behaviour change programme to meaningfully bring down energy costs for the Council, generating savings that can be reinvested: and with the unit cost of energy as high as it is now, the savings could be significant. The evidence on the effectiveness of these approaches is robust, but we recognise that a trial is likely to be best approach, in budgetary terms, in the first instance. This will generate real savings, without revenue commitments tagged to them. What’s to lose?


I offer this summary in the hope, but not necessarily the expectation, that the Labour Group will support our amendments.


Our Vision


All of this might suggest I have a decidedly glum outlook for the City. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: I’ve chosen to settle here, to start a family. I think Newcastle is a wonderful place to live and thrive. One thing that I have always appreciated about this chamber is that we all love our City, and all want the best for it.


I want my son to grow up here, to able to go to a good school, to be able to cycle there safely when he’s old enough, to enjoy our green spaces and to have the opportunity, when he gets to that age, to get a good job here doing something he loves, whatever that might be. I want him to live in a good home, to enjoy good services, and to love Newcastle like I do.


This means getting things right: no more spats and squabbling; articulating and delivering a real vision for Newcastle; collaboration across local authority lines; and no more excuses. In fairness, I note a shift in the rhetoric on display from the speeches so far tonight, so I say to the Labour Group: you’ve had a decade at this, it’s your agenda, your mess, so sort it out. Or we’re happy to do it for you.

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