WIRRAL Council leader Phil Davies has hit back at statements made by Prime Minister David Cameron during an interview with the Globe this week.
Mr Cameron visited our offices in Birkenhead on Wednesday as part of a tour of Merseyside and Cheshire.
During his visit, he gave his views on fracking, council cuts, the bedroom tax, strikes and "The Big Society".
Today, Cllr Phil Davies has his say....
Wirral Council’s Budget - Mr Cameron said Wirral Council is spending more money now (£359m) than it was in 2008 (£345m) and called on the authority to look at uncollected council tax, their reserves, sharing services with other councils and "making their budgets stretch further" to avoid "difficult cuts to frontline services".
Cllr Davies: Firstly, with regard to Wirral Council’s funding, I don’t recognise the figure of £359m quoted by the Prime Minister as Wirral’s spending this year.
It appears to be based on a flawed and unsound calculation produced by the Department of Communities & Local Government which very few people accept or even understand.
The latest financial report presented by the Director of Finance to Cabinet on the 7th July reports forecast expenditure in 2014/15 of £276m.
Crucially, the Prime Minister completely fails to acknowledge that since 2010 the council has suffered a 57% reduction in its grant funding which equates to £120m.
And we have had to absorb several items of unfunded growth such as the spiralling costs of social care. This is the same for all other deprived northern councils who are also making massive cuts – are we all wrong?
The difficult decisions we have had to make around budget savings are the direct result of the government’s decision to make unprecedented cuts to Wirral Council’s budget.
The bad news is that these cuts will continue and the council will have to make additional savings of £70m between 2015-18.
I have said on many occasions that I accept that savings need to be made to reduce the national debt.
However, my objection is to the total lack of fairness in how the cuts to local government funding have been apportioned, with northern councils which have high levels of deprivation being hit the hardest.
How can it be fair that Wirral has lost £151 per head in funding compared with just £2 per head in wealthy areas such as north Dorset in the south of England?
The Prime Minister says that we need to look at uncollected council tax. Wirral has one of the best collection rates at 96%.
However, collection rates have fallen across the country because the government inflicted a 10% cut in council tax benefit which was directly aimed at the most vulnerable and needy in our society – for Wirral this was a loss of over £3m.
It has led to some of the poorest people in our borough, who previously paid no council tax, having to pay a proportion.
Not surprisingly, collection rates have gone down in many areas because this group has found it hard to meet the extra costs – a further hit on deprived councils.
On the question of reserves, we have had to put more money into this pot to fund the costs of change.
To make the savings imposed by the government we need to pay for redundancies, remodelling costs, one off change costs to pump prime new models and encouraging communities to help themselves.
More importantly, the use of reserves to fund ongoing spending goes against all the principles of good financial planning – what happens when your reserves are exhausted and we face unexpected costs such as the recent winter floods – which unlike in the south, Wirral did not get any government funding for?
The Prime Minister advocates sharing services with neighbouring councils. We are already doing this on services for example to schools where we collaborate with Cheshire West & Chester Council. We are looking at extending the number of shared services.
Mr Cameron is truly living in cloud cuckoo land if he believes that Wirral Council’s budget can adequately fund the needs of our population and that there’s no need for difficult cuts to frontline services.
Wallasey town hall.
Bedroom Tax - Mr Cameron said the spare room subsidy will help the 8,000 people still on the housing waiting list in Wirral and was a "basic issue of fairness".
Cllr Davies: Turning to the Prime Minister’s comments on the bedroom tax, he appears to be oblivious to the fact that this is one of the most pernicious and hated policies any government has implemented.
It is leading to the break-up of communities. It is unworkable because there are insufficient smaller properties for families who can’t afford to pay the tax to move into. Ironically, because it is unworkable and more people will be forced to move into the more expensive private rented sector, it is likely to end up costing the government more in housing benefit. The best thing would be for the bedroom tax to be scrapped and the next Labour government will do this as a matter of priority.
One of the reasons for a high housing waiting list is simply because people can no longer afford to bear the financial burden of this unfair tax and are seeking smaller houses to manage better – having been forced to leave their family home of decades. Unfortunately, there are not enough smaller houses to meet demand.
Wirral campaigners protest against the bedroom tax.
Fracking - David Cameron said he feels the extraction of unconventional gas can lead to competitive energy prices and create jobs and wealth locally. He said if Wirral Council does not want fracking to take place at Hilbre Island, they do not have to give permission.
Cllr Davies: The Prime Minister spoke passionately in favour of fracking. I am totally opposed to this method of extracting gas on environmental and safety grounds.
I am not prepared to accept what amounts to a bribe whereby an area will receive a financial sum if they agree to a well being dug for the purposes of fracking. I am not prepared to expose residents and future generations to potential ecological disaster for any price.
The council at its meeting on July 18, 2011 unanimously approved a motion stating its opposition to shale gas or coal bed methane testing or extraction in Wirral until the council is satisfied as to the safety of the process and the risk of adverse environmental impacts has been fully addressed.
The Government however has passed a law taking away peoples’ right to object to fracking under their land. Although this council would refuse permission for fracking to take place on Hilbre Island – it is possible for organisations to frack under Hilbre Island using a drill based elsewhere and we can do nothing to stop it.
Given the fulsome support of the Prime Minister for fracking, I think we need to know whether Wirral Conservatives and Wirral West Tory MP, Esther McVey, are now in favour of this technology. I hope they clarify their position as a matter of urgency.
The Prime Minister says that fracking can lead to competitive energy prices. May I respectfully suggest that this objective could best be achieved if he stops the excessive and disgraceful profits being made by the energy companies.
Hilbre Island - a potential spot for fracking?
Cllr Davies: One of the issues which was not discussed with the Prime Minister by the Globe was the living wage. I was proud to point out to the Prime Minister at the Chamber of Commerce event, that my council was a living wage employer and that I was encouraging businesses in Wirral to embrace that goal.
The PM endorsed my campaign for a living wage to be “the norm” and I was very pleased that at least there was something we agreed on.