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Trying to get to the bottom of Tory cuts: Why can't they come clean?

Turkeys won’t vote for Christmas, but may vote for brand new, unnecessary council office buildings

The big decision on the new office accommodation scheme for Harrogate Borough Council, championed by the ruling Conservative Group, takes place on 15th July.

Having seem lots of the detail, finally, on the scheme, I am deeply concerned that this plan will reap no real extra annually recurring savings over and above a scheme of retaining and updating our current town hall at Crescent Gardens and retaining one other adjacent building, Springfield House (“Plan B”).  Though, of course, we are only being given the potential cost savings based on a comparison with the status quo—that of remaining in five offices—that everyone absolutely agrees is not tenable.  So there have been no costings assembled on “Plan B”, that would give us at least some figures and projections where we could truly “go compare”.

Because of the ever-growing amount of information that we democratically elected councillors have to keep secret from the very people who are paying for these schemes, I cannot divulge any of the detail—especially the financial details as yet.  But it seems that a vital step has been missed out—or not even been started yet—at HBC which makes this whole exercise seem rather “previous” to say the least.

We have not looked strategically at our options at becoming a unitary authority, and the very significant cost savings that this would undoubtedly bring annually.

In more recent years an already impoverished Local Government has been expected to play its part in balancing the nation’s books by the end of the decade.  For example, North Yorkshire County Council and Districts have had to make significant savings, in the County’s case alone, around £168 million (actual and projected) between 2011-19.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has published a report that reckons that local authorities could be in the red to the tune of over £19 BILLION by 2020 unless something is done. Many District Councils up and down the country, with much smaller budgets than county councils, could be facing bankruptcy.  And many are already exploring ways of providing shared services or moving to unitary or combined authority status.

Recently, Lord Heseltine, in his review of the regions, has come out strongly in favour of unitary authorities at the expense of District and County Councils.

Unfortunately, the conclusion must be drawn that the two tier system is a system we can no longer afford. One recent convert to unitary, Northumberland, has reported savings over a three year period of over £80 million, whilst a recent survey in Lincolnshire has reckoned that a single unitary alone in the county could save up to £30 million.

In the case of North Yorkshire and its districts just think of the salary savings from cutting down from a Chief Executive per authority, savings in sharing back office functions and reducing the number of councillors.  But there lies the problem, it would seem.  Turkeys just don’t vote for Christmas, but some at least may be inclined to vote for a brand new and unnecessary council office building, it would seem.  The 15th July meeting will bring a decision.

Shame we are debating the wrong issue

Beating the Underdog

It’s been an extraordinary thing the past five years in Government that the Liberal Democrats have just gone through.

In this country, we are traditionally proud defenders and supporters of the underdog.  But that has not been the case for the Liberal Democrats, as junior partners in a coalition that has lasted and provided a stable arrangement for the country as the economy slowly recovers from an unprecedented economic crisis.

It seems that the underdog has not been popular.  Sometimes it has seemed that beating the underdog is a favourite pastime for the public and press.

We are endlessly blamed for the increase in tuition fees, despite the fact that it was a Tory policy, that we simply could not stop.  Yes, Clegg got it wrong in the way the whole thing was handled at the time (which he has apologized for since), but it was a Tory policy.

We have been blamed for the bedroom tax—another Tory policy.  Our manifesto makes it clear that we would rescind this.

There are other Tory policies that I would dearly loved to have stopped, such as cutting the legal aid budget and many features of the Gove education agenda.  But at least we have delivered around 80% of our manifesto commitments, and put the country before blind party loyalty, as we have soldiered on through this parliament.

We have grown up as a party of Government during this time and secured some fabulous policies.  We could not stop everything the Tories wanted to do, but we have stopped a lot.  We have been like David going up against Goliath in terms of our relative size, so we genuinely have much to be proud of.

On the eve of poll my most fervent hope is that people get behind the underdog again, in the traditional British way, and especially in my own seat of Harrogate & Knaresborough.

We may not have been perfect, but at least we have been in there fighting for a better, fairer, more equal Britain.  There is nothing I would like more than to join that fight in the next parliament, working alongside my colleagues. There is still a lot of work to be done.


A Boost to Apprenticeships

There are lots of good things in our manifesto, and you can read the whole version here:  But one thing I would like to highlight is apprenticeships, as we are determined to make even more progress, over and above the 2 million apprenticeships created in this parliament.

Liberal Democrats would make the UK the apprenticeship powerhouse of Europe by creating more new apprenticeship places per year than Germany. Central to the ambition is a commitment to double the number of employers offering apprenticeships to young people to 360,000 – as part of a big expansion of apprenticeships.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, has led the drive to deliver more than 2.2 million apprenticeships in government, twice as many as were delivered under the last Labour government. This vast expansion was in apprenticeships which are, in general, longer (at least one year) and more advanced (level 3 and above).

The Liberal Democrats want to see:

  • New national colleges through the vision in Vince Cable’s Green Paper for a new generation of colleges filling the gap left by the abolition of polytechnics by Labour.
  • A concentration on higher apprenticeships – level four, foundation degree and above – building on the Coalition’s work.
  • An emphasis on apprenticeships in key areas of skill shortages: digital, construction and engineering.
  • Developing the emphasis on employer ownership with more apprenticeships to small and medium sized enterprises which currently have poorer take up.
  • A commitment to help employers by exempting them from national insurance when taking on apprentices and by providing hundreds of thousands of apprenticeship grants for small businesses throughout the next parliament.

For me this focus on high quality vocational training is very welcome, and apart from any of its other worthy goals, really does seek to get that equality of status with academic education.  This is central to Liberal Democrat values, as we seek to reduce gaps in income, status and wealth, and thereby ensure everyone can lead a valued and fulfilling life