Teflon Tories and Budget Black Hole - Tribune Article from Mike Freeman

Trafford Council has now been under Tory control for 10 years. One of the party’s supposedly flagship councils, it is the blue chink in the otherwise Tory-free zone of Greater Manchester.

The Tories have continued to cling onto power under the guise of sound financial management. They have always presented a balanced budget which they have ensured is underspent every year and have frozen council Tax in the process for the past four years. It is apparent, however, their claims to fiscal probity are at last beginning to unravel.

 

There is a £7 million hole in Trafford Council’s budget for 2014-15, caused by financial mismanagement combined with a lack of challenge from a ruling group obsessed with claiming that savings can be delivered with no impact on service delivery.

Austerity has just about brought Trafford to its knees. Cuts of more than £50 million up to 2013-14 have seen council services decimated, council employees made redundant and a Tory vision of only being in the business of delivering “minimum statutory” services becoming a reality.

Volunteering in Trafford is no longer about enhancing a service; it is about replacing paid operatives who ran the service. Already, we know that plans for 2015-16 will see all Trafford’s youth centres close, SureStart centres cut to two (from 16 in 2012) and libraries shut their doors for the final time. All of this is on top of the additional savings required to ‘plug’ the £7 million black hole in the budget.

The £7 million hole comes on top of already planned £17 million of cuts to services for 2014-15 and the brunt of the additional cuts now required, will fall on our most vulnerable. So how has this happened and who is taking the responsibility?

The overspend went undetected in adult social care. A demand-led budget, it is apparent the financial management procedures in place were not adequate and not capable of alerting council officials to the seriousness of the situation.

There were no clear lines of responsibility, utter reliance on the system in place for forecasting, lack of transparency and accountability, and a culture of passing the buck.

Trafford Labour councillors have asked the ruling Tory Group for a line by line account of the overspend, highlighting statutory and non-statutory spending. Several weeks after asking, nothing has been received. Yet the Tories seek our support for the necessary budget changes but treat searching questions and scrutiny of their strategy with utter disdain. Their arrogance surpasses their intelligence levels.

Where was the leader and deputy leader of the council in all of this? At the time problems first came to light, they held the finance and adult social care portfolios. The answer is that they appear to have been nowhere. Can we expect an apology, acceptance of responsibility, or a resignation? That would be out of the question in Tory Trafford where our Teflon Tories believe it is their birth right to be in control.

It has taken some time to learn of the true extent of the financial problems facing Trafford. What we do know is that Trafford Tories knew of the problems in early April 2014. Did they declare the problem? Of course not. They delayed it until after the local elections in May.

At the same time as the leader of the council was scurrying around trying to find out just what had happened to his now decimated budget, a local campaign focusing on their fiscal probity in running the council saw the Tories spend thousands on a wrap around the local paper setting out their proud financial record. This was arrogance personified.

In corporate world, the leadership would have by now fallen on its proverbial sword. Instead in Trafford the Tories have rewarded their leader with a 30 per cent pay rise, compensation for additional responsibilities. Let’s just hope some of the pay rise is spent wisely on some basic arithmetic lessons.

 

Mike Freeman

First Published in Tribune Magazine

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