Leader's Column in Southwark News March 2022 - 'Over a decade of short-term Labour policies'

Southwark Council’s budget cycles always serve as a reminder of Labour’s short-term, superficial policies after more than a decade in power.

This year’s budget was a case in point.

The Labour party cut its budget for key services, which may haunt us in the years to come, and used extra funding to reverse its own decisions.

This was all done in the context of a greater financial settlement from the UK government.

A Southwark Council report in January called the UK government’s provisional allocation of money to local authorities “a favourable near-term result,” which provided a real terms increase in council funding of more than 4 per cent.

The UK government then gave an additional £2.3 million in funds to Southwark Council in February.

There, clearly, was room in this year’s budget to protect key services.

Yet, Southwark Labour’s decision as to what to do with £1million of this February money revolved around tackling crime with a new community warden taskforce and creating a hardship fund for residents.

Both are admirable policies, on face value, that the Liberal Democrats voted through.

However, they also spoke of a party having to deal with the result of years of short-term policies.

It, for instance, should be no surprise that we need a community warden taskforce after the council reduced the number of officers it employed by 74 per cent between 2010 and 2021.

Similarly, although inflationary pressures are beyond council control, our residents would be better prepared this year if Labour had not cut Citizen Advice Bureau funding in 2020.

The party’s showcasing of new policies at the budget is nothing but back-pedaling on its earlier choices, which it has done in previous years too.

In 2021, for example, the council used its budget to launch a new youth deal.

But, a few years before, in 2016, Labour slashed its youth services funding by 50 per cent.

The Southwark Liberal Democrats campaigned for the council to reconsider these decisions at every step and urged them to evaluate the impact down the line.

This year we tabled a budget amendment that looked to invest into customer services and street cleaning finances after cuts of 41 per cent or 26 per cent respectively.

We also proposed spending nearly five times the amount of money Labour dedicated specifically for climate change in order to speed up council action.

Labour has a history of inaction, with Liberal Democrat pressure leading to the party finally allocating part of its £25 million climate emergency fund after it sat on it for a year.

Most importantly, our second amendment looked to reverse Labour’s cuts to special needs and early years budgets by using the council’s own finances immediately.

Labour may promise potential, alternative funding for these services and it may vow to protect them indefinitely.

But, words are not enough. When it had the money to guarantee these services (in the form of £1 million of the additional government money in February), it declined to use it.

You could argue that paying for these special needs and early years services is outside of its remit.

Yet, Labour contradicts this message by funding more community wardens while conceding in its own amendment that crime is primarily a responsibility for the police.

When the party then predictably voted our amendments down, it sent a clear message to the many residents it has stopped listening to.

It told you that poor customer services and street cleaning issues were problems for another day.

It told you it was going fast enough on the climate emergency (even if multiple Southwark campaigners are slamming it for its dither and delay).

And it told you it was happy to cut its funding to services for the vulnerable, again, even when it had the money to pay for them.

February 2022’s budget consequently reminds us that Labour, after more than a decade in power, is still intent on creating the problems it later pretends to solve.

As each day passes, and as the May 2022 election looms, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the only way to break this pattern is to vote Liberal Democrat.