We have had three regular council meetings since the elections in May. I am now a back bench councillor and recently we have been having shorter debates. As a result I have not had the chance to speak since the election despite my frantic indications to the mayor. As I did prepare some comments on the Albert Dane Day Centre for yesterday’s council meeting I have reproduced them here to get them off my chest.
This afternoon by way of research I drove past the Albert Dane Day Centre. It looks like too many of the council’s “frontline” buildings. Old, tatty, unkempt. The comparison with overlit, shiny Perceval House is stark. For those who have not seen it recently Albert Dane is a single storey building of little charm on Western Road in Southall. But, what goes on inside the building is rather more attractive. Around 40 disabled adults at any one time enjoy a social outlet that allows them to get out of the house, mix with their peers and dispel dark thoughts.
This council does indeed face some hard choices over finance in the next few years. Unfortunately it is yet again taking the easy choices offered by officers rather than coming up with imaginative solutions of its own. This idea is not new. For four years in power, year after year, the Conservative administration had to turn down proposals from officers to close this day centre. The new Labour administration has crumbled the first time the proposal was put to it.
The papers presented to Cabinet on 14th September showed that the revenue budget for Albert Dane was £380K and the net saving envisaged was £156K. Let’s put the saving in some context. The proposed saving to be achieved is 0.3% of the overall savings the council says it needs to find. Another comparison is that this saving is only 14% of what we spend on councillors’ allowances. In its manifesto the Labour party said that it would: “Reduce the Council’s bloated communications budget and stop money being wasted on party political propaganda”. This saving is only 5% of the council’s annual publicity spending.
Quite rightly councillors opposite will ask: “What would you cut?”. My answer would be to look at the terms and conditions under which we employ the council’s own staff. This is not the time to go into details but simply by bringing our own staff into line with the norms of the private sector we could take something like 20% out of our labour bill and do most of the heavy lifting required to deliver the cuts whilst protecting frontline service such as the Albert Dane Day Centre. This approach does though require a certain courage to tackle some tough vested interests. Easier surely to pick on the weak?
The most telling line in the cabinet report that presaged this closure was the bit that said: “… disposal values will form part of the council’s overall Property Strategy”. For those that have not read the papers the council’s Property Strategy seeks to roll up a whole raft of council assets, many of which are precious to our communities, and use the funds released to build three new shiny council offices. This is the so-called hub concept that, again, is at the heart of officers concerns but not the public’s.
This council is in danger of appearing to be willing to punish the weak whilst being too cowardly to take on its own officers and producer interests. Watch out, you will get a reputation.
During the debate the protfolio holder Cllr Jasbir Anand was challenged to allow the voluntary sector to take over the site and indeed a solution where the site is leased to a voluntary organisation who can attract users spending their personalistion bucks may work very well if the council has the imagination to pursue it. Cllr Anand did not give a very convincing account of her contact with the voluntary sector. Cllr Anand only managed to turn up for one third of the council meetings she was supposed during the last council year (the third worst performance of all 69 councillors). I guess it will be too much to expect her to drive a tricky, hard-to-negotiate solution with the voluntary sector in the face of officer advice to neatly close the centre and sell the site for housing to fund smart new offices for council staff.