The leader of Oldham Council has defended the way he’s gone about identifying proposed budget savings. Cllr Howard Sykes also insisted he was right not to join other town hall leaders in publicly slamming the government over cuts in local authority funding.
He was speaking yesterday as the Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration which runs the council revealed its final set of budget proposals for the coming financial year. The authority must save £41m, and councillors will vote on the plans at a meeting a week today.
Labour-run councils including Manchester have been extremely vocal in their attacks on ministers, while dozens of Lib Dem councillors from across the country wrote to The Times last week to protest at the funding settlement.
Cllr Sykes merely said he felt Oldham had got “a rough deal.” But he insisted yesterday that regardless of what he said or did, “the funding settlement was not going to change” after it was announced. He added: “Since then I’ve put all my effort into finding appropriate savings, anything else is a distraction.”
Conservative Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has angered some councils with his tough attitude on cuts. During a recent visit to Oldham, he told Saddleworth News: “What we’ve managed to do is to ensure that Oldham Council is in a position that it’s loss of spending power is no greater than 8.9%. I’m very confident that, providing they go about it in a very sensible way and protect frontline services, they should be able to deal with sums like that.”
Cllr Sykes said yesterday: “Mr Pickles knows my views, but I don’t think it’s the best thing for Oldham citizens if I go tilting at the minister. Shouting about it from the top of Pots and Pans won’t make any difference.”
He said talking to his Lib Dem and other colleagues in government behind the scenes was a better strategy: “Then, when you do shout, you get listened to. At least in my experience.” He added that he was most concerned about the “speed and scale” of the cuts demanded by central government, with many of the savings for the years ahead having to be made now.
On the cuts in Manchester, which has said many libraries, swimming pools and public toilets will close, Cllr Sykes said: “Manchester’s there with its bleeding stumps everywhere. We’re not closing swimming pools, we’re not closing leisure centres, we’re not closing libraries. We’ve gone elsewhere. For some things the public most value, it will be business as usual.”
Cllr Sykes suggested Oldham had managed to avoid some of the cuts seen in places like Manchester, because it had begun the process of identifying savings last summer. He stressed that Oldham had put most of its proposed savings before the council by December, much earlier than some other authorities.
He described the process by which the savings had been identified as “robust” and pointed out that suggestions made by the public, staff and opposition politicians had all been incorporated into the final proposals.
Also yesterday, the leader of the opposition Labour group urged backbench Lib Dems and Tories to side with his alternative budget proposals. Cllr Jim McMahon wrote: “I believe some of the cuts being proposed will damage our borough and will be extremely difficult to reverse once council approves them.”
Most notably, Labour has opposed the proposal to outsource aspects of care for the elderly to the private sector, something the council hopes will save it £1.5m.
In his appeal to potentially disaffected Lib Dems and Tories, Cllr McMahon wrote: “Please remember it is the people of Oldham who will judge your actions. I believe if you vote to protect these services the electorate of Oldham will recognise the courage and moral standing that you would have taken.” Cllr Sykes dismissed the letter as “part of their (Labour’s) national game.”
As many as 800 jobs are expected to go at the council, largely in the labour-intensive areas of services for adults and children. A further £23m of savings must be made for the 2012/13 budget, and Cllr Sykes said the process of identifying those new cuts would begin the day after the 2011/12 budget was passed.
You can read more details about the proposals by looking at the agenda for next Wednesday’s meeting here.