Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Why voting Labour in Hyndburn at the local elections is important

I have been out and about on many doorsteps campaigning in the local elections listening to what people have to say. The intricacies and even the main substance of council business is very seldom reported and so people vote on what they do know.

The unpopularity of the council leader is common - as are events nationally. People's personal experiences such as cuts to the voluntary organisation they work for or changes at their place of employment.

There are answers I could give which are relevant. The answer I do give to the question "Why vote Labour?" is because of the colossal waste of money that the council leader has overseen.

We all accept that during the Labour government years places like Hyndburn were showered with government grants of one sort or another to help build the infrastructure and to develop a policy for growth, improved skills and training.

I can recall approximately the council receiving the following;
Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) £7m (1999-2006)
Neighbourhood Renewal Fund (NRF) £5m (1999-2007)
Housing Market Renewal (HMR) £50m (2004-2011)
DEFRA £2m (various)
Capital funding £9m (2006-2010)
The Worklessness Fund £4m (2008-2011)
Council House sales £6m (1999-2011)
Sale of council houses to Contour £32m (2006)
Extra bank borrowing £16m (1999-2005)
European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) £2m (1999-2010)
Sale of land and buildings £3m+ approx. (2002-2010)
Planning delivery grant £2m approx. (2000-2010?)
Fairshare Lottery £1m (2004-2010)

... and those listed are the big ticket items I can recall.

There have been others such as Children's Fund, the banking of other money in high interest accounts over before handing it over (Lancs County Council, Police, Fire Authority, Government grants), a practice that has gone on for years which could have raised as much as another £7million for the council.

Not forgetting that the government formula grant has risen at twice the rate of inflation for many years adding an extra £1m or two into the council's coffers over the period. Council tax (set by the Conservatives) has risen at twice the rate of inflation in many of those years adding at least another £1million to council coffers.

Since 1997 the council has been paying overpaying some £100,000 from 1997 and £200,000 from 2006 to Lancashire County Council for non-use of concessionary fares.

The above total comes to nearly £100m of extra funding. To be fair £22m did go to pay off long standing loans from council houses built in the 60's and 70's.

Financial waste on a negligent scale has been the history of the current Conservative council who came to power in 1999. Ask this question though; Where has the £100m or so gone? The question is rhetorical as the answer comes first. People walking around Hyndburn can identify little or no change for the £100m.

Changes that have occurred are the health centres but despite council claims they built them, they are PFI contracts (no upfront funding) that were the responsibility of the PCT and in which the council's only involvement was a planning authority to pass consent to build.

The answer is the money was squandered on an unimaginable scale. Such is the incompetence that despite the riches, the council have had to slash services year on year. In 2005 we had the council leader taking the train to London going cap in hand to the government begging for £300,000.

During the last 10 years Hyndburn has slid down the deprivation league tables when other authorities have used their money more wisely. Last month's shocking statistics saw Hyndburn fall from the 45th most deprived to the 34th. A fall of 11 places.

£50million was spent on HMR and whilst fair value was gained from the demolition and the facelift grants £millions were squandered initially on £55,000 per property refurbishments to properties whose market value was not that much, a scheme abandoned later - and secondly on relocation grants up to £30,000 to encourage people to move from houses identified for demolition. Gross waste was also to be found in the demolition programme itself which over-demolished at huge cost. Further waste was to be found in selling off the land for next to nothing.

The rest went on a variety of personal pet projects; consultants for plans that never got off the ground but fooled the public; election gimmicks to acquire votes; employment within the council offices with what I would describe as 'non-jobs'; gold plated grants to community projects that started with good intention but were unsustainable and regeneration projects that failed and left the council with an expensive bill.

Nothing more exemplifies this waste than the Hyndburnlife website which the council set up. Two years ago I exposed the fact the council had spent £650,000 building the website and within 6 months had abandoned it.

Or the fact that the council was handing over an £200,000 to Lancashire County Council for concessionary fares every year and never bothered to check.

At one council meeting a contract was signed for £300,000 and Conservative councillors were unaware of how much they were spending. Shocking.

Last week a constituent come to my advice surgery to inform me that the council as she described it (I think she meant a Conservative Councillor) telephoned her pestering her to take council money for her organisation. She asked for criteria and an application and was told this hadn't been printed. On that basis she declined the offer. She was subsequently contacted again and she told me she was asked "how much do you want?".

I am in no doubt that the golden years have gone for council funding and that is a tragedy for Hyndburn. A wasteful council and hard times is a recipe for further pain. Despite the £100m my advice surgery today threw up the perennial  council problem, the mismanagement of allotments. How hard is it to run allotments with £100m EXTRA to spend?

Contrast this to the last labour administration up to 1999 who built the Arndale, who built industrial estates, who built the Globe Centre - providing jobs and strategic investment. Or even the fleeting Labour administration of 2002-2003 who introduced recycling to Hyndburn despite inheriting a £2million black hole in the finances.

With such a litany of financial horror stories is it fair to say Hyndburn Council is the worst council in Britain? Has any council wasted as much with such abandon?

Never in the history of elections that I can remember (bar 1979), have so many needed to vote to get rid of so few. As Arthur Boast the Labour candidate in 1966 local elections in Church stated, "vote early and vote Labour".