27 February 2016

As Lewisham Council members met on Wednesday 23rd February, it was Green Councillor John Coughlin who stood for and voiced the opinion and feelings of Lewisham's communities by opposing Labour's budget.

At a time when budgets are being squeezed and critical local public services cut, John questioned the need for a Mayoral position in Lewisham, suggesting that downsizing the governance structure in Lewisham could help support some public services. He raised libraries as an area in which further options could be explored in order to save them.

Councillor Coughlin's speech is shared in full below.

It seems like not very long ago that we were here discussing last year’s budget, in the hope that it would be the last budget subject to the relentless and implacable attack on local government introduced by this philistine pirate government, a government for whom the very concept of local government, of sensible, sustainable public service provision is anathema, instead of a change in government, we find ourselves subject to ever more cuts, destructive, indefensible, ideologically-driven and vitriolicly maintained cuts to services that ordinary people rely on; we are told that Mr. Cameron submitted a letter to his own local council saying he is ‘disappointed’ by the council’s proposals ‘to make significant cuts to frontline services – from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums’ – can I express my own disappointment that the government of my country is run by a risible public-school cabal of semi-literate non-entities - so instead of breathing a sigh of relief and being able to relax the constricting straightjacket of Tory extremism, we again find ourselves fighting for breath and trying to preserve service provision as best we can for the people of Lewisham. This government is ideologically opposed to any form of public service, and if any public service can possibly be replaced by a private service, the government will insist this is done, irrespective of whether this is beneficial or cogent or even vaguely sensible. So we are left this year once again with the question, how can we best protect our public services in Lewisham?

Some have advocated refusing to set balanced budget and letting the cards fall where they may; the problem with that is that the cards will not fall favourably for the people of Lewisham and they will be left holding a busted flush, losing out to a budget which will be set by central government, imposed by a party roundly and consistently rejected by the people of Lewisham. To not set a balanced budget would be an abrogation of responsibility, a responsibility assigned to this council by the POL- this may not be to everyone’s liking (and in fact it isn’t much to mine) but that’s the problem with democracy, you can’t simply use if for your own ends. You can’t simply change it because you don’t like the outcome.

I note the budged assumes a 3.99% increase in Band D Council Tax for Lewisham’s services for 2016/17; including the 2% increase announced in the Local Government Finance Settlement for Social Care, along with the withdrawal of the Government’s freeze grant of £1.0m; an increase which, whilst not pleasant, is unavoidable. With the removal of the freeze grant, it would be perverse and unacceptable for this council to maintain its council tax freeze this year. It has become necessary to increase Council Tax to attempt to mitigate the effects of central government vandalism on public services

Indeed when faced with an unparalleled and relentless attack on local government, it is incumbent on representatives of local government to use every single revenue stream possible to protect and defend public services and the Council Tax is one of the few revenue streams that the Council has access to and that it can control. I also note that once-off reserves are used to fund the current savings shortfall of £5.942m for 2016/17 to balance the budget. Now you can fairly ask me the question, well what would you do? 

I am a Republican, but as a Republican, I believe it is unhelpful and meaningless not to give the Queen credit where credit is due. As in Britain, so in Lewisham, I want to address the elephant in the room - is it appropriate for Lewisham to have a mayoral system? Is it appropriate for the mayor of Lewisham to earn more than the PM of UK, and if we are have determined that we must find every last penny of savings, are there not savings to be found from shrinking the governmental side of the council. 

We currently have 54 councillors, a deputy mayor and a mayor. In my view, we should be examining how we as a council can downsize the financial burden of our governance and use the money to support public services in Lewisham. Indeed, with a mayor and cabinet taking all final decisions upon themselves, I question what the purpose of 54 councillors is. If oversight and scrutiny is the primary function of councillors, then we can sensibly and fruitfully reduce the number of councillors, alternatively we can maintain the number of councillors and allow them to do the job for which they were elected. Either way, I believe there is money to be saved by considering modifications to Lewisham’s administrative infrastructure.

This budget asks us to sacrifice a professional and well run public library service. Now I’m sure I don’t need to persuade anyone here that professionally and properly funded libraries are a good thing, but a time when we are closing community centres, slimming down services which enable people to come together. I do not believe we have properly assessed the situation as regards public libraries or done everything we possibly can to keep them open - we are in danger of uncritically maintaining an oversized and top-heavy governmental system in Lewisham Council and at the same time sacrificing an undersized and vulnerable library service. This is not, in my opinion, an acceptable position. The first sacrifices we are called on the make are ones that affect ourselves, before we close down libraries or reduce them to non-professional community run sub-libraries, we must look to ourselves and, with respect Mr Mayor, I believe that entails a return to the traditional model of local government which does not rely on and fund the Mayor and cabinet system we have at the moment, a system  which I believe has cost and continues to cost the people of Lewisham money, money which in straightened times, we can ill afford. 

Whilst it would be an abrogation of responsibility not to set a balanced budget, it would also be an abrogation of responsibility not to examine how best we can save money by slimming down the council administration. We are asked to approve cuts to every manner of public service we provide, whilst blithely maintaining an unbalanced and unprofitable system of governance within the council. I note that, in setting this budget, the Council will maintain a level of corporate balances and reserves which are adequate to deal with any risk associated with the delivery of this budget. The Chief Financial Officer recommends holding non-earmarked reserves at the current level of £13.0m with the proviso that should the need arise to call upon these reserves during the year, they are replenished as soon as possible. We are accepting of the fact that we might have to open the council’s reserves to cope with the forecast overspend, I believe that Lewisham libraries are so important, that libraries in general are of such value, that we should expend every effort to protect them. Would it not be possible for a professional library service to be maintained within the overspend so that we can keep Lewisham libraries going until such time as we are able to restore our reserves, because if we lose Lewisham’s libraries now, we will NEVER get them back. We must strain every sinew in our attempts to halt this government’s petty minded and vindictive assault on public libraries (a petty mindedness and vindictiveness which is probably the result of them not making sufficient use of libraries themselves).

I understand how difficult the process of setting a balanced budget for this year has been, but in the absence of any attempt to streamline and improve Lewisham Council’s administrative system and with the firm belief, that I express with absolute respect to you Mr Mayor, that a mayoral system is not appropriate to finding savings or to the scrimping and penny pinching which we are subject to thanks to this government of vandals, and in the absence of any sound and substantive proposals to find money to save a professional and sustainable Lewisham library service, I am unable to vote for this budget.

It seems like not very long ago that we were here 
discussing last year’s budget, in the hope that it 
would be the last budget subject to the relentless and 
implacable attack on local government introduced by 
this philistine pirate government, a government for 
whom the very concept of local government, of 
sensible, sustainable public service provision is 
anathema, 
instead of a change in government, we find ourselves 
subject to ever more cuts, destructive, indefensible, 
ideologically-driven and vitriolicly maintained cuts to 
services that ordinary people rely on; we are told that 
Mr. Cameron submitted a letter to his own local 
council saying he is ‘disappointed’ by the council’s 
proposals ‘to make significant cuts to frontline 
services – from elderly day centres, to libraries, to 
museums’ – Can I express my own disappointment 
that the government of my country is run by a risible 
public-school cabal of semi-literate non-entities 
- so instead of breathing a sigh of relief and being able 
to relax the constricting straightjacket of Tory 
extremism, we again find ourselves fighting for breath 
and trying to preserve service provision as best we 
can for the people of Lewisham. This government is 
ideologically opposed to any form of public service, 
and if any public service can possibly be replaced by a 
private service, the government will insist this is 
done, irrespective of whether this is beneficial or 
cogent or even vaguely sensible. So we are left this 
year once again with the question, how can we best 
protect our public services in Lewisham?
Some have advocated refusing to set balanced budget 
and letting the cards fall where they may; the 
problem with that is that the cards will not fall 
favourably for the people of Lewisham and they will 
be left holding a busted flush, losing out to a budget 
which will be set by central government, imposed by 
a party roundly and consistently rejected by the 
people of Lewisham. 
To not set a balanced budget would be an abrogation 
of responsibility, a responsibility assigned to this 
council by the POL- this may not be to everyone’s 
liking (and in fact it isn’t much to mine) but that’s the 
problem with democracy, you can’t simply use if for 
your own ends. You can’t simply change it because 
you don’t like the outcome.
I note the budged assumes a 3.99% increase in Band D 
Council Tax for Lewisham’s services for 2016/17; 
including the 2% increase announced in the Local 
Government Finance Settlement for Social Care, along 
with the withdrawal of the Government’s freeze grant 
of £1.0m; an increase which, whilst not pleasant, is 
unavoidable. With the removal of the freeze grant, it 
would be perverse and unacceptable for this council 
to maintain its council tax freeze this year. It has 
become necessary to increase Council Tax to attempt 
to mitigate the effects of central government 
vandalism on public services
Indeed When faced with an unparalleled and 
relentless attack on local government, it is incumbent 
on representatives of local government to use every 
single revenue stream possible to protect and defend 
public services and the Council Tax is one of the few 
revenue streams that the Council has access to and 
that it can control. 
I also note that once-off reserves are used to fund the 
current savings shortfall of £5.942m for 2016/17 to 
balance the budget,
Now you can fairly ask me the question, well what 
would you do? 
I am a Republican, but as a Republican, I believe it is 
unhelpful and meaningless not to give the Queen 
credit where credit is due. As in Britain, so in 
Lewisham, I want to address the elephant in the room 
- is it appropriate for Lewisham to have a mayoral 
system? Is it appropriate for the mayor of Lewisham 
to earn more than the PM of UK, and if we are have 
determined that we must find every last penny of 
savings, are there not savings to be found from 
shrinking the governmental side of the council. 
We currently have 54 councillors, a deputy mayor and 
a mayor. In my view, we should be examining how we 
as a council can downsize the financial burden of our 
governance and use the money to support public 
services in Lewisham. 
Indeed, with a mayor and cabinet taking all final 
decisions upon themselves, I question what the 
purpose of 54 councillors is. If oversight and scrutiny 
is the primary function of councillors, then we can 
sensibly and fruitfully reduce the number of 
councillors, alternatively we can maintain the number 
of councillors and allow them to do the job for which 
they were elected. 
Either way, I believe there is money to be saved by 
considering modifications to Lewisham’s 
administrative infrastructure. This budget asks us to 
sacrifice a professional and well run public library 
service. Now I’m sure I don’t need to persuade 
anyone here that professionally and properly funded 
libraries are a good thing, but a time when we are 
closing community centres, slimming down services 
which enable people to come together. I do not 
believe we have properly assessed the situation as 
regards public libraries or done everything we 
possibly can to keep them open - we in danger of 
uncritically maintaining an oversized and top-heavy 
governmental system in Lewisham Council and at the 
same time sacrificing an undersized and vulnerable 
library service. This is not, in my opinion, an 
acceptable position. 
The first sacrifices we are called on the make are ones 
that affect ourselves, before we close down libraries 
or reduce them to non-professional community run 
sub-libraries, we must look to ourselves and, with 
respect Mr Mayor, I believe that entails a return to 
the traditional model of local government which does 
not rely on and fund the Mayor and cabinet system 
we have at the moment, a system  which I believe has 
cost and continues to cost the people of Lewisham 
money, money which in straightened times, we can ill 
afford. 
Whilst it would be an abrogation of responsibility not 
to set a balanced budget, it would also be an 
abrogation of responsibility not to examine how best 
we can save money by slimming down the council 
administration. We are asked to approve cuts to 
every manner of public service we provide, whilst 
blithely maintaining an unbalanced and unprofitable 
system of governance within the council.
I note that, in setting this budget, the Council will 
maintain a level of corporate balances and reserves 
which are adequate to deal with any risk associated 
with the delivery of this budget. The Chief Financial 
Officer recommends holding non-earmarked reserves 
at the current level of £13.0m with the proviso that 
should the need arise to call upon these reserves 
during the year, they are replenished as soon as 
possible
We are accepting of the fact that we might have to 
open the council’s reserves to cope with the forecast 
overspend, I believe that Lewisham libraries are so 
important, that libraries in general are of such value, 
that we should expend every effort to protect them. 
Would it not be possible for a professional library 
service to be maintained within the overspend so that 
we can keep Lewisham libraries going until such time 
as we are able to restore our reserves, because if we 
lose Lewisham’s libraries now, we will NEVER get 
them back. We must strain every sinew in our 
attempts to halt this government’s petty minded and 
vindictive assault on public libraries (a petty 
mindedness and vindictiveness which is probably the 
result of them not making sufficient use of libraries 
themselves).
I understand how difficult the process of setting a 
balanced budget for this year has been, but in the 
absence of any attempt to streamline and improve 
Lewisham Council’s administrative system and with 
the firm belief, that I express with absolute respect to 
you Mr Mayor, that a mayoral system is not 
appropriate to finding savings or to the scrimping and 
penny pinching which we are subject to thanks to this 
government of vandals, and in the absence of any 
sound and substantive proposals to find money to 
save a professional and sustainable Lewisham library 
service, I am unable to vote for this budget.






 

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