Austerity as we think of it post the financial crash is far from being the whole story of the decline in council services

There is no doubt that austerity as either implemented by the Coalition Government (and then sadly pushed far, far harder by the present Tory Government) or indeed as outlined by Alistair Darling (his austerity would probably have been harsher than the Coalition’s some commentators say) on behalf of the Labour Party prior to the 2010 General election has had a huge impact on the ability of councils to deliver services.

But in fact there is a funding crisis that goes back much further than the financial crash of 2007 that has impacted on local authorities. That funding crisis is back in the headlines now but I recall it rearing its head almost every year that I was Sefton Borough Councillor during the budget setting process. In fact it was twofold i.e. children in care and care for the elderly.

Year on year senior council officers would present the need for extra money to be put into these two care budgets, often the amounts asked for, year in year out, would be have six 000,000’s behind them.

My point is that the elderly and children in care budgets have been eating further and further into council budgets for many, many years so austerity as far as local authorities are concerned did not start with the great financial crash but maybe 10 to 15 years prior to that.

And what made me think of this matter which must have been impacting on every local authority with responsibility for elderly/child care? Well two things really. The elderly care crisis is hitting the headlines yet again because politicians refuse to address it properly and have failed to do so for a least the last 20 years. And the other very local issue that made me think about it is the demise of public toilets and in particular the former award winning ones in Maghull.

Maghull's closed public toilets at the Square Shopping Centre.

Maghull’s closed public toilets at the Square Shopping Centre.

Public toilets have been in decline for a long time and the Maghull ones are an interesting and sad example not least because Sefton Council would once boast about them being award winners (Public Loo of the Year or some such award) back in the 1980’s. But since those days the Council’s focus, you could say its priority, has been slowly but surely moved towards funding the elderly and children in care.

What’s happened has been a creeping process whereby the amount of money each local authority has to spend on other services has got smaller and smaller as the budgets for elderly and children in care have got bigger. And this well before the consequences of austerity and the financial crash hit them via government grant cuts.

The thrust of government policy has in effect been to force local authorities to spend their money in these two key social care areas and on little else. Yes there’s no doubt that the austerity that followed the financial crash sped up this process beyond what anyone could have conceived but it had been a trend for a long time, one which was pursued by governments of all colours.

In reality local authorities (this does not include Town and Parish Councils – they don’t get an government grants) are now focused on delivering statutory services and have almost no money to deliver things that local people may want. Public toilets, for example, are a non-statutory service hence their demise across the UK.

Personally, I have thought that the funding of local authorities has been inappropriate for many years because they are in reality delivering two very different things i.e. local often non-statutory services for their communities and statutory services where they are in effect simply an agent delivering governmental/national services. The two got muddled up in the times of plenty and it did not seem to matter. However, in times of scarce money it is the local mainly non-statutory services that have been lost as the money has gone to prop up the statutory ones.

The former Aintree Library - closed by Sefton Council.

The former Aintree Library – closed by Sefton Council.

Sadly, it is more complex than that even because if you take the example of libraries they are a statutory service i.e. local authorities have to provide them. But the level to which they are provided is a different matter so Sefton Council was able to reduce it’s libraries from 13 to 6 without falling foul of the law not so long ago.

However you look at it local authorities are the fall-guys for austerity because governments of all colours over the past 20+ years have not funded statutory services, particularly adult/elderly social care, properly.

Closed Sefton Libraries – Why I was so angry over Labour’s ‘just close them’ approach

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/first-look-inside-waltons-revamped-11457683

The Liverpool Echo has the story – see link above

I probably bored for England during my attempts to try to stop the straight closure of 7 of Sefton Borough’s libraries. And yes of course others did far more than I did to try to save their local libraries and the huge campaigns in Churchtown, Aintree, Crosby and Birkdale come to mind – all of which were sadly ultimately unsuccessful.

Fighting for Southport's Libraries

Fighting for Southport’s Libraries

What angered me was the lack of imagination and forward thinking in Sefton Council. The fact that under the dead hand of its Labour Leadership straight closure seemed to be the only possibility being seriously considered. Yet across the UK innovative ideas have been tried to re-purpose/reorganise community libraries to give them a viable future and I have commented on many of these ideas before.

rsz_al_collins_at_a_save_aintree_library_public_meeting_on_26th_october_12_2

And here we have another one and it’s on Sefton’s doorstep in Walton! I am not saying that all 7 of Sefton’s closing libraries could have been saved like this but I am saying that with innovation maybe they could all have had a future in differing ways.

Oh for the dead hand of local political leaders!

Library losses and a strange ‘volunteer’ thing happening in Sefton Borough

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35707956“>www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35707956

The BBC has the story on its web site – see link above

Fighting for Southport's Libraries

Fighting for Southport’s Libraries

If you type in ‘Sefton’ in the box on the BBC web site article to gain information about your own local authority the following comes up:-

In Sefton since 2010 seven libraries and/or mobile libraries have closed. In 2010 there were 137 paid staff in libraries, compared with 58 now. The council had 80 unpaid volunteers in 2010 and has 164 volunteers today.

rsz_al_collins_at_a_save_aintree_library_public_meeting_on_26th_october_12_2

Now then the interesting and probably astounding thing here (assuming the BBC information is correct) is that the number of volunteers working in Sefton’s remaining libraries has risen substantially over the past 6 years, indeed it has doubled! But why is this a surprise? Well back in the turmoil of Bootle Labour closing Sefton’s libraries 2 or 3 years ago they made it very clear that they did not want volunteers helping to run libraries! The link below is to pertinent blog posting of mine from back in 2014:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2014/02/23/we-simply-do-not-want-volunteers-to-run-council-services-what-other-conclusion-can-you-come-to/

rsz_orrell_library_5

So where does this leave us? The big questions are:-

* Has Labour-run Sefton ditched its opposition to library volunteers? If so when did they make this most welcome policy shift?

* If the volunteers wanting to take over the running of Aintree and College Road Libraries were unacceptable, why was this the case when the Council has seemingly gone on to recruit other volunteers?

* Why were Bootle Labour so opposed to the volunteers running closing libraries in the first place? Or is it more subtle than that in that some volunteers are deemed to be OK whilst others were deemed to be the opposite?

The murky world of Labour-run Sefton Council means we will probably not be getting any answers soon. And that is so sad.

Sefton under Labour – Why can Libraries not be run by volunteers?

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/five-liverpool-libraries-handed-over-9765609

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The story of Liverpool City Council handing some of its libraries over to volunteers is on the Liverpool Echo web site – see link above.

rsz_al_collins_at_a_save_aintree_library_public_meeting_on_26th_october_12_2

Every time I see a Council handing over its libraries to volunteers to run I say why were Sefton Labour so determined not to allow volunteers to run its closing libraries? It is clearly not a Labour Party thing to keep volunteers at arms length nationally so why in Labour run Sefton?

Sefton Libraries – With elections coming up its time for Labour-run Sefton to say why they stopped volunteers from running closing libraries

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-31208967

The article above on the BBC web site shows yet again why volunteers in Sefton should have been given the chance to run the libraries that our Labour-run council had decided to close. In the case above – accessible via the link – it is a Tory run Council but interestingly Labour’s Shadow Culture Minister Chris Bryant is not condemning them for putting the libraries under the control of volunteers. So opposing volunteers running libraries is clearly not a national Labour policy.

Lib Dems fighting for Sefton's Libraries

Lib Dems fighting for Sefton’s Libraries

All we really know about Sefton Labour’s anti-volunteer vote is that they said they did not want volunteers to run the libraries. They have never made a coherent argument for adopting this stance but they did hide behind a Sefton Council-made process via which the volunteers allegedly did not pass go so to speak.

There were two very credible bids from volunteer groups to run Aintree and College Road (Crosby) Libraries; both were told to sling their hooks.

Come on Labour let’s hear from you saying clearly why you opposed giving volunteers a chance. Do you just oppose library volunteers or is your policy one of opposing volunteers helping to run council services generally? If its just that you have a problem with library volunteers why is that?

Liverpool saves its libraries, so why did Sefton close its libraries?

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-29985668

The BBC has the story – see link above

Having worked with campaigners across the Borough of Sefton who were trying to stop the closure of many branch libraries I am left scratching my head. Why can Labour-run Liverpool City Council save its libraries from closure whilst in neighbouring Sefton Borough not only did the Labour-run Council close more than half of its libraries but it also stopped volunteers from running closed libraries too.

Sadly this placard could also read 'NO' to volunteers taking over Aintree Library!

Sadly this placard could also read ‘NO’ to volunteers taking over Aintree Library!

I realise that Liverpool Labour Mayor Joe Anderson was put under a great deal of pressure in Liverpool, not least by Liverpool Lib Dems and Liverpool residents, to back-off from his closure plans but that sort of pressure was also put on Sefton Council’s Labour rulers.

We all know that Council’s are short of money these days but if you can keep a strong and vibrant library network in Liverpool you can surely keep one in next door Sefton.

And for joyful reactions to the saving of Liverpool’s libraries see this link to the Liverpool Echo site:-

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/pictures-liverpool-users-react-news-8086020