On Tuesday, Cllr Stephen Morgan gave his response to the city council budget – his first as Leader of the Labour Group. It was a speech as memorable for passionate opposition to further service cuts as for the clarity of Labour’s alternative vision for Portsmouth.
Cllr Morgan acknowledged that, under Liberal Democrat and now Conservative administrations, Portsmouth has “weathered the biggest cuts in public spending since before the Second World War.”
He spoke of people “struggling to get by as wages remain low, welfare slashed even as food and energy bills, rents and petrol prices continue to rise.”
Damningly, he outlined the reality of life in the ward he represents, Charles Dickens: “Up to 67% of children are living in poverty. Life expectancy is 10 years less than in other parts of our city. And recently homelessness has more than doubled.”
Cllr Morgan left the council chamber in no doubt as to the reasons why “hard working families and the vulnerable are struggling.” He explained:
“The unprecedented cuts which government has foisted upon this council are not the result of overspending by any government or even of the global financial crisis. These cuts were never inevitable. They were – and are – a choice.”
Speaking of the importance of investing in skills and jobs, his message to the Conservatives running the council was clear:
“This council must and should do more than simply managing a dwindling budget. It must lobby its friends in Whitehall harder. It must seek a better deal from Government.”
As well as insisting that the council should appeal for a higher allocation of the funding distributed from London, he proposed an amendment to the new council budget. The Labour Group budget amendment is built around three themes.
First, a reduction in the cost of local democracy, which would involve streamlining the number of Cabinet posts; cutting some of the allowances councillors gain, and moving to four-yearly ‘all out’ elections to reduce costs and bring political stability to the authority.
Second, a reduction in management overheads. This would be achieved by developing new and innovative ways to provide public services; reducing the cost of communications and admin by going ‘paperless’, and working in partnership with more neighbouring authorities to share costs in everything from management to HR and finance.
Finally, greater investment in frontline social care services. Social care is set to bear the biggest cuts in council spending under current proposals, with a risk that the NHS will come under further pressure to pick up the pieces. Labour’s proposals include using the savings they have identified to invest in social care services; enabling the voluntary sector to be more creative in meeting local demands and supporting the community, and redesigning funding criteria to focus more on services which deliver or support social care priorities.
In conclusion, Cllr Morgan spoke of his “belief that our council can improve people’s lives and change things for the better.” He said:
“We’ll keep trying to make Portsmouth a better place for all local people and to strengthen our communities. And to make hope possible at a time when despair could otherwise be truly convincing.”