PRIME Minister David Cameron visited Wirral today on a tour of Merseyside and Cheshire.
His first stop in the borough was the Hillbark Hotel in Royden Park, where he was the guest of Wirral Chamber of Commerce.
Mr Cameron later made his way to the Wirral Globe offices in Birkenhead, where he met staff – and posed for “selfies” with the sales team - before being interviewed by reporter Emma Rigby and editor Leigh Marles.
Globe (G): Wirral Council is cutting a further 500 jobs this year on top of the 1,200 it shed over the last three years. Our street lights are going off, day centres are closing and special needs schools being eyed-up for closures.
The council says Government budget cuts mean they must rein-in spending by a further £57m over the next two years. We’ve seen no reduction in our council tax to compensate for this wholesale reduction in services - so haven’t the local authority cuts gone far enough now?
Prime Minister (PM): Let’s be clear, first of all, in terms of the money that Wirral gets, it gets £169 per household more than the average for England, so I don’t think it has an unfair funding settlement. In terms of the spending that it needs to do, this year it is spending £359m.
That is actually more in cash terms than it was spending in 2008, when it was spending £345m.
In 2008, our economy suffered a major contraction.
Our economy got smaller, we’ve only just got back to our economy being the same size today as it was in 2008 - and yet Wirral Council given the funny situation is able to spend more money than it was spending then, so I don’t think it’s an unfair situation.
I think they need to look at uncollected council tax, they need to look at using the reserves that they have, which are significant.
And they should also look at sharing council services and management of other services with other neighbouring councils.
They can make their budgets stretch further by doing that so I think if they do those things, there’s no need for difficult cuts to frontline services.
G: Fleet Street is viewed with deep suspicion, to say the least, by the public. Do you think this distrust has also infected people's opinions of the local press?
PM: I don’t, actually. I think Britain’s local newspapers were never caught up with the bad practices that took place in some national newspapers and I think the bonds of trust between local newspapers and local readers are very strong.
Local newspapers at their best are very very strong parts of the local community.
Papers like the Wirral Globe, these are papers that support volunteering, Big Society initiatives, community initiatives; they are very connected with the local community.
G: The under-occupancy subsidy or Bedroom Tax is continuing to cause deep concern in Wirral. Next week the Wirral Campaign against Bedroom Tax has organised a protest march through central Birkenhead.
Is the system working as efficiently and as fairly as you’d expected?
PM: The point about the spare room subsidy is that it’s a basic issue of fairness.
If you live in private sector rented accommodation, but you’re on housing benefit, you don’t get a subsidy for a spare room whereas if you’re in council accommodation you do and that’s why it’s right to make this change.
In terms of what’s happening here in Wirral, firstly, there are discretionary housing payments made available by the Government of almost £1m, they are there to help hard cases.
And the second point I make is it is worth remembering that there are still in Wirral over 8,000 people on a housing waiting list who’d love to have a council house.
The whole point about this change is to try to make sure that we use the housing assets we have available most efficiently for families who need housing.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Wirral West MP Esther McVey.
G: Wirral local government workers will be joining national colleagues in staging a second strike in September. Unison says workers are angry at “being exploited and forced to live on poverty pay.”
Do you maintain the 1% cap on public sector pay rises is still justified?
PM: I think it is justified for two reasons. One is everybody knows we’ve had to take long-term decisions about public spending that involve difficult choices, but if we keep pay restrained then it’s possible to keep more jobs. If you didn’t make that choice, you’d see more jobs lost.
The second thing is I think if you look at what’s happened in the private sector, pay rates haven’t been going up.
In fact, in some cases people in the private sector have had to take pay freezes or pay cuts.
So I think that 1% is fair and coupled with that of course you’ve got the Government’s tax cuts so you can earn up to £10,000 and not have to pay any income tax, so that’s helping.
In the Northwest we’ve taken 343,000 people out of income tax all together including some people who are relatively low-paid working in local government.
Prime Minister David Cameron calls into the Globe offices during his tour of Merseyside.
G: Wirral is part of the North West’s so-called “Ocean Gateway” zone for fracking and shale extraction.
Many Globe readers have expressed serious concerns about the process. Are you personally convinced fracking is entirely safe?
PM: I do think there is a safe way to extract unconventional gas. I think they have demonstrated that in America.
I think we should cautiously and carefully make the most of this technology, because it can lead to competitive energy prices.
It also makes us less reliant on dangerous parts of the world for our oil and gas, and it can create a lot of jobs and wealth locally.
But I know there’s concern expressed about one particular potential area - Hilbre Island - but that is owned by the council. If the council don’t want to go ahead, they don’t have to give permission for it.
Sometimes I think there’s some scaremongering being put about, dare I say it, even scaremongering being put about by the party that is actually in control of the council that owns the land.
David Cameron has a read of this week's Globe - which features an article written by the PM himself.
G: Residents in Halton have been told they will not have to pay to cross the new Mersey Gateway Bridge or existing Silver Jubilee Bridge because they are deemed to be local roads.
Do you think it is fair that residents in Wirral and Liverpool have to pay to use the Mersey Tunnels when they are essentially a “local road” too?
PM: I think we need to look at this issue carefully.
We need to first of all stand back and look at the bigger picture, which is it’s good because the money is coming into the Northwest to build this vital infrastructure.
We’re going to have - as well as the tunnels obviously - two Mersey crossings which is good, but also the opportunity further upstream of another potential bridge in Warrington.
It's good the investment is coming in, but we’ve got to make sure it’s fair in terms of the charges people face, and I quite understand the campaigns that Esther McVey, John Bell, other neighbouring MPs are fighting over these issues.
We should listen carefully to make sure that this investment comes in and that people aren’t disadvantaged through excessive charges.
Globe editor Leigh Marles and senior reporter Emma Rigby speak to Prime Minister David Cameron.
G: Do you still believe in the “Big Society” as passionately as you did when first taking office?
PM: Absolutely - and it was a great honour today to hand out one of our 'Points of Light' awards to another Dave, a Dave who broke his back many years ago but didn’t let that get in the way of volunteering at a farm that operates as a day centre for adults with learning disabilities up to two days a week. And that’s a classic example of the Big Society.
The work that local newspapers do to celebrate volunteering, to celebrate community organisations, to build up the glue of our society, the things that bind us all together, is all part of what the Big Society is about.
Under this Government, volunteering is up, charitable giving is up, the number of community organisations has increased, the power they have to buy community assets, run locals shops.
I think there are lots of examples of the Big Society alive and well here in Wirral.
G: If you had a single message to give out to Wirral Globe readers - we’re not that far away from an election – what would it be?
PM: The message would simply be that we have a long-term plan that’s turning the country around; it’s working. but it’s not finished.
Please re-elect us so we can complete the job. There are more people in work, more businesses, the economy is growing - people are beginning to see the benefits of that - but we need to stick to the plan to deliver what we can to truly make this country great again. We’re on track, stick with us.