Tonight’s papers have outlined the immense financial pressure the council faces. I know the Conservatives would like us to think that there will be no reduction in services and that all financial pressure will be managed away by efficiencies, but service users are always affected by cuts in budgets. Efficiencies mean re-structuring front-line staff leading to ever increasing workloads and redundancies, they mean continuing to outsource contracts to companies that don’t pay the London Living wage and have very high staff turnover – cuts in funding affect quality of provision and have real-life consequences for our employees and our service users.
And as a result of the government cuts that our communities have endured for the last 9 years, communities are losing their resilience. In our last council meeting Conservative councillors talked about how cuts in policing have affected their residents who have to encounter beggars and homeless people or witness drug dealing. We heard about the Knightsbridge folk who are considering paying for private security. And then Councillor Less spoke about crime in the Church Street ward -about stabbings, shootings, arson and robberies. I can give you an update since then -there was another stabbing in Church Street last night. But this is the difference between how austerity and cuts affect the poorer wards compared to the wealthier wards. They affect poorer residents directly and brutally. Drugs, serious crime and homelessness -for poorer communities these aren’t just a nuisance they have to witness on their way to work. And that’s why the cuts in youth services remain such a sore point for our residents.
I am pleased that in recognition of the impact of the cuts in youth services, a third of council tax voluntary contribution will be spent on young people. However, I would urge you in the future to get better advice on how to support young people -perhaps from a relevant charity such as ‘working with men’. I think focusing resources on employment is a mistake because the prospect of a minimum wage job isn’t what’s going to stop our young people being involved in drugs and crime and we need to be thinking about a range of support including mentoring, psychological support and other activities also.
Similarly, the council is hoping to reduce child poverty by helping parents find employment. And of course, unemployment is a factor in child poverty. However, 2/3 of children living in poverty have a parent who is working. In practice, if the council is serious about reducing child poverty through employment services, it needs to think specifically about maternal unemployment and we need specialist services to support mothers who face multiple barriers and need to have flexible working hours and high quality, affordable childcare. Additionally, the reality for many families in private housing is that 2/3rds of any increase in their income will not go towards improving their quality of life but to decreasing the government’s housing benefit bill. What families need in order to improve their situation in the long-run is secure, low cost social housing and yet Westminster council has chosen this time when people have already suffered from the effects of austerity for nine years to reduce the proportion of social housing in new affordable homes from 60% to 40%. Additionally, central government cuts mean a reduction in discretionary housing payments will further increase the risk of homelessness.
Our older residents are also facing cuts in frontline services as the Central London Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) has withdrawn funding from jointly commissioned services. We have recently found out that the Penfold hub has lost 45% of its funding while Open Age services face similar cuts. This reduces vital services for our older residents that can keep them active, happy and well. Similarly, the NHS funding for Speech and Language Therapy has been reduced, thus limiting the chances for children with disabilities to reach their full potential. Currently, the standard face to face speech therapy time children get is 3 hours per term! It’s already pretty impossible to make an impact on 3 hours per term. Imagine if that’s reduced further.
And this is only the start. As the CCGs are seeking to reduce the Better Care Fund contributions to the minimum, the following years will be very difficult for the council and our residents. The result for me personally is that I find myself on the health and well-being board always commenting on policies that use ever so nice words about reaching out to everyone and ensuring equal access while there are fewer and fewer services for people to access.
These cuts by our CCGs are partly due to the financial challenges the CCGs faces as being ‘over-capitated’. This is because the latest formulas about how funding should be allocated per person takes less account of deprivation than they used to. It’s a similar process to the fair funding review which will allocate local authority funding and where Westminster council was recently predicted to lose 51 % of its share. In both cases, funding shifts from urban areas to rural areas from poorer areas to wealthier areas and from Labour voting areas to Tory voting areas. Add to this the cuts in school budgets and the result is an increase in poverty, health inequalities and crime. And in the end even the residents of Knightsbridge will be affected.