Thursday, 19 May 2022

Scrutiny: A Point Of View

I was elected to the Council in 1998.  In 2002, the Executive & Scrutiny system was introduced under the terms laid down by the Local Government Act 2000.  At this time, Lewisham also adopted the directly elected Mayoral system.  So, from this date Lewisham has been governed by a Mayor & Cabinet system.  That is, we have had an Executive comprising a directly elected Mayor supported by a Cabinet of between 7 and 11 elected Councillors, with the majority of members forming the Scrutiny body of the Council.  During the past 20 years I have spent 8 years as a Cabinet member and 12 on the Scrutiny side.  For 3 of these 12 years, I was the Chair of a Scrutiny Committee and for 1 year, this last year, I was Chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee and Chair of the Business Panel.

In my experience, Scrutiny is something that Councillors, especially new ones, find challenging to understand and consequently, this is a role that they find difficult to adequately fulfil. I hope that this summary along with wider induction sessions will assist members in this regard.  In this introduction, I hope to lay out a few guiding principles that I feel drive effective scrutiny.  I hope that my principles will have some general application.

Before I lay out my guidance, I would want to encourage all Scrutiny members to read the Council’s Executive/Scrutiny protocol.  This is something that the Full Council agreed be appended to the constitution as guidance to help both Executive & Scrutiny members to better understand the two different roles and how they should interact.

Cooperation not Competition

In Lewisham, the Mayor, by virtue of being directly elected, has a mandate to implement their policies.  The Mayor is supported to accomplish this by the Cabinet and their Group colleagues who ran on the Mayor’s manifesto at the election.  Therefore, the Mayor has a legitimate expectation that Scrutiny members, when approaching their role of scrutinising the Executive and holding it to account, will be fundamentally driven by a desire to cooperate with it to deliver the Corporate Strategy priorities.  The job of Scrutiny, therefore, is principally to help not hinder.

Respectful Challenge not Committed Opposition

Just because we need to cooperate with the Executive to achieve common aims rather than compete with them for power and status, this does not mean that we should shy away from robust challenge.  If policy is not working, if policy implementation has been poor, if policy is not addressing a particular need or issue, then we need to say so clearly and in public.  However, this must always be done with courtesy and respect.

To borrow a phrase, it can be argued that Scrutiny is an ‘exorbitant privilege’.  Scrutiny Councillors can be remorselessly critical on principle about everything the Executive does and seeks to do.  This can become a mindset.  But we must remember that we are in a privileged position.  Arguably, we mark other people’s homework without having to submit any of our own.  We must remember that in order to gain credibility and therefore to be effective, we need to wield our influence with care and in such a way as to earn respect.

To Compliment not To Undermine

The role of Scrutiny is to come alongside the Executive to compliment its role and, therefore, the work of the Council and to build public confidence, not to undermine it.  Organisations work better when they have a culture that encourages people to own up to mistakes and identify problems and failings at an early stage.  To do this, people need to be confident that they will not be blamed and will not be punished for being honest.  It is only in these circumstances that an organisation can reap the benefits of corporate learning.  Organisations that successfully build this culture can then move on to build a culture of continuous improvement.  Scrutiny has a crucial role to play here as its function is to inhabit this space and to identify weaknesses and strategies for improvement.  The way it performs this function will very much set the tone for how the Council deals with these issues.  Scrutiny should lead the way in creating a ‘safe space’ culture for staff so that they can report problems and deal with difficult and potentially damaging issues with confidence.

Leading not merely Shadowing

The Business Panel is charged with scrutinising all decisions made by the Mayor & Cabinet, although there is flexibility as to how it chooses to discharge this responsibility.  However, there is no prescription as to how the rest of Scrutiny has to fulfil its function.  That is, there is no requirement for Scrutiny to restrict its work to merely shadowing the work of the Mayor & Cabinet and ‘man to man marking’ the Mayor and individual Cabinet Members.  The Full Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the individual Scrutiny Committees and the new Task & Finish Groups are free to set their own agendas and to look at what they want to look at, led by their Chairs, providing that it is relevant to the work of the Council.  Thus, Scrutiny has great leeway and, therefore, opportunity to pursue the interests and priorities of members in such ways as to add value to the work of the Council and assist in the delivery of the Mayor’s priorities and the Council’s Corporate Strategy.  My advice would be not to squander the opportunities that Scrutiny affords by becoming fixated on the work of the Mayor & Cabinet.  And to try to be guided by a desire to compliment their work when deciding on your work programmes.

Evidence Based nor Opinion Driven

The work of Scrutiny is very much about reviewing policy to assess its effectiveness and developing policy to improve the lives of residents.  People often come on to the Council with strong political and ideological views.  However, the most important thing that Councillors must bring to this process is an open mind.  Scrutiny Councillors should see themselves as impartial members of a residents’ jury, charged with the objective and dispassionate examination of the evidence and under an obligation to come to a balanced and rational judgment which is in the public interest.  They should not behave like lobbyists who come to a matter with a predetermined opinion of what the outcome should be.  Put all opinions to one side and let the evidence be your guide.

The Officers are Your Friends

The Officers’ role is to support members, not to thwart them.  Do not see them as enemies or subscribe to conspiracy theories about them.  In my experience, they all want to help members to achieve their aims and objectives.  Take them into your confidence.  Treat them with respect.  I have found that Officers are hardworking, professional, experienced and knew a lot more about things than I did.  Based on my experience, you will benefit from listening very carefully to their advice.

Parity of Esteem

This is a phrase that we hear from time to time.  It refers to the aspiration that there should be parity of esteem between the two sections of the Council’s governance.  It means that the Council, in the way it functions, should demonstrate that it holds both branches of the Membership body in equal regard.  This is a challenging aspiration.  However, I believe that, nevertheless it is a right and proper.  There are a number of ways in which the goal of parity of esteem can be a pursued.  One is for Scrutiny members to demand it as a right.  Another is for Overview & Scrutiny to aim to conduct itself in such a way that it earns the respect of the Executive, Council Officers and our residents.  I prefer the latter.  Indeed, one of my aims as Chair of Overview & Scrutiny this last year was to work in such a way as to so raise the esteem in which the Scrutiny function was widely held, such that the Executive felt that it needed to raise its game in order to maintain parity. I think that this is a healthy way of mutually raising standards.

‘Salus Populi Suprema Lex’

This is the motto of Lewisham Council which roughly translates as ‘the welfare of the people is the highest law’.  I have always taken this to mean ‘put the people first’.  This should be your guiding principle in all you do.  It is important to remember that relatively very few residents know who you are, even if you have been on the Council for many years.  You were elected not for your abilities and experience.  You were elected because of the party banner under which you fought the election.  Your election should not be viewed, therefore, as a personal endorsement.  Your elected office should be worn lightly.  Remember that in carrying out your duties on the Council as a Scrutiny member you have to represent all residents, whether they voted for you or not.  Turnout and geographical mobility being what it is, they probably did not.  It is important to be a voice for all the people.

Conclusion

I hope these principles will be of use to you, especially new Councillors, as you seek to carry out your duties as a Scrutiny member of Lewisham Council.  The holding of public office is a great privilege, a sacred trust, but also a heavy burden.  Every resident relies on the Council for something.  Some rely on it very much indeed to provide them with a decent quality of life.  For some, this really is a matter of life and death.  So I wish you all every success as you work for our residents to make Lewisham the best place to live, work and learn.

 

 

Friday, 22 April 2022

My Time As A Member Of Lewisham Council Is All But At An End. A Few Thoughts.

I failed to be selected in the new Deptford ward, which was set up following the recent review carried out by the Boundary Commission.  This means that my 24 year stint as a Member of Lewisham Council will come to an end on election day, May 5th.  If I were to have the opportunity to make a valedictory speech and chose to take advantage of it, it would have probably gone something like this, after stripping out the usual niceties that are obligatory on such occasions:

Having failed to be selected by the Labour Party to contest next month’s Local Council elections in Lewisham, my political career will therefore shortly be coming to an end.  Over the past month or so I have thought about my 24 years on the Council and the manner of my departure.  I would like to offer a few of these reflections now.

I feel some gratitude to the Labour Party Members of Deptford ward.  By choosing not to select me to be one of their candidates they have given me a gift.  They have removed the burden of public office from my shoulders.  I have not had to decide to lay it down.  My conscience is clear.  Perhaps you have to have been a Councillor for some time to fully appreciate and have sympathy for what I say.  During my time on the Council, the role of Councillor has become far more demanding and the process of selection far more competitive.  It is difficult to excel and be seen to do so in this environment when you see the holding of public office as something of a sacrifice, especially when you are up against people who view it as a cherished ambition, if not something akin to drawing first prize in the lottery of life.

‘Salus Populi Suprema Lex’

This is the motto of Lewisham Council which roughly translates as ‘the welfare of the people is the highest law’.  I have always taken this to mean ‘put the people first’.  I have tried in my time on the Council to make this my guiding principle.  To me, everything else was of secondary importance.

Some people over the years and especially in the last few weeks, have privately said to me that I have the reputation of always speaking the truth as I saw it and doing it with unremitting frankness.  I am not entirely sure if they feel this is something to be praised or pitied.  To the extent that this is true, how can I explain myself?  Do I suffer from some kind of illness?  Perhaps.  Do I come from a long line, on both sides of my family, of working class, contrary, perverse, Mavericks who could not ever encounter any authority without wanting to kick against it? Absolutely.

The Bible says that the truth will set us free.  Lying, deceit, double dealing and trying to be all things to all people, by contrast, poisons the heart, binds the spirit and troubles the mind.

So, if I told the truth as I saw it or told a truth that I thought needed to be said and if I did it at times and in circumstances when wiser and better people would have had more sense, and if I did it with scant regard to the personal consequences, then I did it because I wanted to be free.

My father, sadly now dead for some years, was a Christian leader all his adult life.  As I get older, I realise that he has been my guiding star.  He used to have his own benediction which he would often perform at the end of church services.  He would raise up both his arms as he stood in front of the congregation and he would simply say with a big smile on his face, ‘We wish you all every blessing’.  What I understood him to mean by that was that ‘We’, the church, wish to one another and to our friends and family, to our neighbours and our communities and to the whole world, every good thing that life has to offer. Peace, joy, wealth (but not too much!), health and good fellowship.  But above all, love.  Love in your life that is pressed down and running over.  So much love that you can’t hold on to it all, so it flows out of you and enriches the lives of others and makes the world a better place.

I am not a preacher.  I went into politics as I didn’t feel that I was a patch on my father.  But as I get ready to take my leave from this particular stage as the curtain falls, I wish to say to the Mayor, to the Cabinet, to fellow scrutiny Councillors, to Officers of the Council, to all residents of our borough, to friend and foe alike, ‘I wish you all every blessing’. 

Sunday, 20 March 2022

My Speech To The Deptford Ward Selection Meeting 3 March 2022

Everyone has their own story.

This is mine.

My mother was the illegitimate child, and I use that word deliberately because that is how it was described in the 1930s, of a itinerant Irish labourer who she never knew, and a waitress from Deptford.

She grew up on the Crossfields estate, experiencing the stigma that sadly came with single parenthood at the time.

My father was the product of a one-night stand which led to a shotgun wedding and a marriage that was characterised by domestic violence, alcohol abuse and neglect and ended in acrimonious divorce and bleak poverty.

When my parents first got married, they lived in a prefab in Berthon street.

I lived there for the first 3 years of my life.

It was so cold that ice used to form on the inside of the windows.

I ended up getting pneumonia and almost dying.

The local doctor told them that if they didn’t move straightaway, I would die.

So they moved to a small terraced house in Crofton Park.

My Dad was employed in poorly paid, white collar, non-unionised work well into his late 30s.

When I was married with a family of my own, he told me how money was so tight and the stress of this so great, that he would often feel very tearful.

The other part of my story is about having parents who met in the Church at the top end of Frankham Street by the High Street.

The were leaders in that church all their adult lives.

They devoted their lives to trying to help others.

I still meet people in Deptford who remember them and express their thanks for the help they gave.

For all this, my memory of growing up is of being in a loving family,

Where the values of work, honesty and respect for others were imbued through the power of example.

Try to do your best.

Be kind.

Do well for yourself.

Then you will be able to provide for your family

And be better able to help others.

I have been very blessed in my life.

A happy family.

A successful business.

A life of public service including 24 years on the Council.

I owe a lot my parents

But I also owe a lot to the NHS, a good state education, and state support for economic development.

I know the importance of good social housing.

Of secure, unionised work.

My life has shaped my politics.

For many people deprivation, disadvantage and poverty are life’s starting point.

But this doesn’t have to be a life sentence.

Our job is to make sure that it’s not.

If you select me to represent you on the Council, this will continue to be my mission.

Working together to build a better future for everyone.

Monday, 14 March 2022

My Speech To The Deptford Ward Selection Meeting 22 February 2022

My family believed that Deptford’s decline began when the borough lost its civic identity when it was taken over by Lewisham in the amalgamation of 1963.

20 years ago, at the time of the last boundary changes, I argued that one of the new wards should be called Deptford so that its historic importance could be recognised.

So, I am delighted to have this opportunity to be selected to represent Deptford ward, the place where I was born.

I am not seeking selection anywhere else.

Let me start by saying that I didn’t support Jeremy Corbyn.

But I believe that his leadership of the party achieved 3 things.

Firstly, it put an end to the Parliamentary Party’s acquiescence to the Tory Austerity narrative.

Secondly, under John McDonnell the Party moved to embrace a more left of centre economic policy.

Lastly, Corbyn inspired a generation of young people to get politically active.

The challenge now is to keep these people engaged.

We need them to build a party that inspires public confidence so we can win the next General Election.

Then we can pursue the polices that we all care so much about.

Councillors must lead this endeavour.

One way they must do this is to run Labour Councils in a way that demonstrates that Labour can be trusted in government.

I have a track record of building an inclusive business that provides good secure jobs, a safe and supportive work place and promotes diversity.

At Hales gallery our 2 newest artists are trans gender people.

I will continue to champion diversity at the Council, in our community and in the wider world.

My priorities for Deptford are:

Social housing.

Good schools.

Sustainable economic development.

Clean streets.

I will continue to work with colleagues to make sure that Deptford is a place that people can be proud of.

My ambition is to make Deptford and the borough of Lewisham the best place to live, work and learn.

I want people to know that we are on their side.

I want people to know that whatever hopes and aspirations they have for themselves and their families, we share them and are committed to helping them achieve them.

Labour.  On Your Side.

I am ready to play my part in this great mission.

To lead, encourage, help and support.

If you put your trust in me, I won’t let you down.


Tuesday, 15 February 2022

A Personal Statement To The Members Of Deptford Ward Labour Party

I currently represent New Cross ward in Lewisham.  This is disappearing due to recent changes determined by the Boundary Commission.  Brenda Dacres, my co councillor for 8 years and I are seeking selection in the new Deptford ward. The process for selecting Labour candidates for Deptford begins today.  My heart felt best wishes go to my friend Brenda who has been a tremendous support to me over the years and has recently taken up the role of Deputy Mayor.  I also wish Samantha Latouche especially well.  Sam is our other co councillor in New Cross and is seeking selection in the new, New Cross Gate ward.  Although only being elected at a recent by election so has already made a big impact both locally and at the Town Hall.  My best wishes go to all other candidates seeking selection in Lewisham. 

ABOUT ME

My mum was always very proud to tell me that I was at least the fourth generation of my family to ‘come out of Deptford’, as she used to put it.  She also took great delight in telling people that the first job I ever wanted to do was to be a dustman.  This is because when we lived in a prefab in Berthon street, the dustmen used to wave to me as I swung on the gate when they drove down the street on their way to their depot on Creekside.  Some people are nostalgic about prefabs but living in one nearly killed me as ours was so cold in the winter that I contracted bronchial pneumonia and had to be rushed to hospital.  This led my parents to nearly bankrupt themselves by buying a small house in Crofton Park with the help of a mortgage from the Council.  Those were the days.

Things have moved on a bit since then for me.  I went to Stillness Road primary school, then Brockley County on Hilly Fields in the building now occupied by Prendergast school.  Then an economics degree from Cambridge, a year working for a mission organisation in Senegal, a couple of years working in banking in the City, then leaving to set up a business in Deptford High Street when I realised that that life and career wasn’t for me.  I formed a business partnership with a friend from our church and founded Revival CafĂ© and Hales Gallery in 1992, with the help of a government grant.  We wanted to do something positive to regenerate the High Street and provide a facility that would bring something good into the community.  Sadly, for us we had to relocate the business to Shoreditch in 2004 because despite out best efforts and commitment, we couldn’t make the gallery work commercially.  Some forces are bigger than you and you have to ride them or you risk being swept away.

As well as there being a Hales Gallery in Shoreditch there is also one in New York and has been for 6 years.  We have worked with artists from poorer backgrounds, BAME artists and artists from the LGBTQ+ community for many years.  The two artists that we have recently agreed to work with are transgender people. 

I have been fortunate in my life due in large part to the support of my family, the existence of the NHS, the opportunity of a state education and the chance to take advantage of Government support for business.  This together with a vision for what was possible, an optimism about the chances to making things happen and a willingness to work to achieve shared goals has helped me to succeed and to be able to help others

BEING A COUNCILLOR

Having an interesting back story and a credible record of activism and campaigning are insufficient preparation for running a billion pound organisation for the benefit of the public.  If you are privileged enough to be elected to the Council, the first thing you do is not hand your manifesto to the Officers and give them instructions on what you want them to do.  The first thing that you will be required to do is to sign a declaration that you will act, at all times and in all circumstances, in the best interests of the Council.  In other words, you are taking on an obligation to run an organisation that has a myriad of responsibilities and commitments that it is legally bound to meet.   You are not a free agent. 

Moreover, giving the impression that anyone can be a politician belittles the office.  Being a politician is a profession like any other.  To be effective you need experience and training.  When I first was elected to Lewisham Council in 1998 it was a very new and bewildering experience. I said very little during the four years of my first term.  Instead, I watched, listened and learnt the ropes.  I was fortunate enough to serve my apprenticeship under some extremely gifted, dedicated and experienced Councillors who took time to train me.  Local people rely on the Council to be well run and to deliver the services they rely on.  Thus, every Council needs a balance of Councillors.  They need a mixture of the new and the experienced.

I have been on the Council for almost 24 years.  In that time I have been:

The Chair of the Pensions Investment Committee

The Chair of the Governance Select Committee

The Chair of the Public Account Select Committee

The Chair of the Audit Panel

The Chair of the Elections Committee

The Labour Group Secretary

The Cabinet Member for Resources

The Cabinet Member for Children & Young People

I am currently the Chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee and the Labour Group Treasurer.

This experience places me in a unique position as far as ensuring that the Council serves our people well.  It also means that I can provide invaluable support to both the new and the relatively inexperienced elected members of the Council.  Working hard to help others achieve their potential as servants of the public who elect them is a wonderful privilege.

MY ACHIEVEMENTS

Having set up my business in Deptford I was involved in several initiatives to try and improve the community.  I was a member of the Deptford High Street Association and then became a Board Member of Deptford City Challenge.  I concentrated on improving support for business and improving the fabric of the High Street.  I helped set up the Deptford Business Development Association which then expanded to become the Lewisham Business Association.  I came to the notice of the local Labour Party and I was approached to stand in the 1998 local elections.

1998 to 2010 was a tremendous time to be on the Council.  We had a Labour Government in Westminster and it provided money to invest.  Basic things like roads and pavements that had crumbled after 18 years of Tory rule that had starved Labour Councils of resources, were repaired and renewed.  Parks were refurbished, schools improved or rebuilt entirely.  New libraries and leisure centres were built.  Innovative approaches were pursued to improve our social housing stock.

2010 saw the end of the Labour government and ushered in the age of Austerity that continues to this day.  In 2014 I was Cabinet Member for Children & Young People.  At that time relations between the Council and the Heads of our secondary schools were at a very low ebb.  The Council was frustrated with the Heads because Lewisham had the lowest performing secondary schools in London.  The Heads were frustrated because they felt that they were being unfairly blamed and insufficiently supported.  I saw it as my primary role to rebuild trust.  I instigated an independent review of our schools that brought the Council and schools together.  It led to the establishment of the Lewisham Learning Partnership that created a platform for delivering sustained school improvement.

Although I have emphasised the need for experience to be a really effective Councillor, there are things which I managed to do as a backbencher which shows that there are always opportunities for Councillors to use such life experience and relationships that they have to make a difference.  One example is when one of my friends who is from Catford got in touch with me when he became the Admissions Tutor for a Cambridge College, in the early 2000s.  He wanted to try a get more pupils from comprehensive schools into Cambridge. Through a meeting I was able to arrange at the Council he made contact with Lewisham College.  They had a very able black female student who had come to the UK as a child.  She was encouraged to apply to his college.  When the tutors were meeting to award places they came to discuss the last available place.  The choice was between this student from Lewisham College and a pupil from Eton.  They chose the student from Lewisham College who, I understand, went on to do very well.  I also took a motion through Council with Cllr Stephen Penfold from Brockley which committed the Council to look at introducing a community skip scheme to try and address the epidemic of fly tipping that we have across the borough.

IN CONCLUSION

After 24 years on the Council my commitment to improve the lives and life chances of the people of Lewisham is stronger than it ever was.  Indeed, my recent election as Chair of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee has energised me as it demonstrated that my colleagues have trust and confidence in me.  We must all come together to work for our common goals and purpose.  We owe it to our residents to give them a message of hope and optimism about the future.  Together we can make Lewisham the best place to live, work and learn.  We must show every resident that whatever their aspirations, whatever their needs, whatever challenges they face, Labour is on their side.  This is why I am seeking your support to continue my work as a Labour councillor, this time for Deptford ward, my birthplace.

We can make a difference. We can make a change.

My very best wishes to you all. 

Paul Maslin

Further reading

If people do not know my biography, then they can read my pitch for the Mayoralty on my somewhat dormant blog:

http://themaslinmemo.blogspot.com/2017/08/update-my-story-why-i-am-running-to-be.html

If people are genuinely interested in my views and politics, you can find out a lot by looking through the other posts, most of which I wrote when I was in the Cabinet.

  

Saturday, 12 October 2019

The Lewisham Mayor's proposed Council Budget 2020/21 - A Point Of View

At the last meeting of the Council’s Public Accounts Select Committee (PASC), I made the point that, when I was Cabinet Member for Resources during the 2010-14 administration, I was sent out to defend the reserves from demands that these be used to support the Council’s day to day spending, thereby reducing the need for cuts. In those days, the use of one-off reserves which, when spent, would be gone forever, to fund ongoing expenditure on things like social services, street sweeping and bin collection was seen as very bad practice and not the kind of thing that a local authority should be doing if it wished to maintain public confidence. I said this in order to emphasise how times had changed. A report that was put before us made it clear that the Council’s General Fund had had to be bailed out using reserves in every one of the last 6 years. Why is this significant? One of the main reasons is that it means that for the last 6 years the Council has spent £100,000s of tax payers' money on the process of setting budgets that disintegrated on first contact with reality. We have spent 6 years on a pointless exercise. 


I suspect that most residents do not appreciate what is involved in a Council Budget setting exercise. All I would say is that it takes months, involves all 54 Councillors plus the Mayor and many highly paid Council Officers in hours and hours of meetings and, in some cases, expensive staff and public consultation exercises. Clearly, we needn’t have bothered. Why spend months and scarce resources in setting budgets for Children’s Social Care and Refuse Collection, for example, which were clearly unrealistic and had to be supplemented by a raid on the reserves? What’s more, why, if we have gone through this exercise in futility for 6 years in a row are we doing it a gain for a 7th year? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, at least according to Einstein. On this basis we are all clearly insane. We would all be better off in terms of saved time and money if we just got a baboon to pick numbers randomly out of a hat and inserted those into the Budget spreadsheet. After 6 years of the Budget needing a bail-out from the reserves, I think that it is reasonable to say that there is evidence of systemic failure in the Budget setting process. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that the same thing will happen to the 2020/21 Budget. The King is indeed in the all together, to quote Danny Kaye. 

This state of affairs should come a no surprise though. Last week when I met up with Barry Quirk, former Chief Executive of Lewisham Council and current CE of RBK&C, for one of our regular catch-ups over a few beers, he showed me something that he had been working on. He had looked at every local authority in the country and ranked their spend relative to their income from Council Tax and Business rates combined. Lewisham was in the second worse position in the Country. Its net revenue spend was around a third higher (32%) than its income, behind Knowsley that spent more than half its income (54%). This compares with neighbouring Greenwich which spent 11% more. In starker contrast lay our other neighbours. Lambeth spends less than its income (79%), while Southwark runs an even larger ‘surplus’, spending only 63% of its combined Council Tax and Business Rate income. Much can be said about this disparity, particularly as the current government seem to be committed to local authorities funding themselves from the income they can generate locally. How are Councils supposed to fund what should be universal services like Adult and Children’s Social Care together with Refuse Collection, which account for nearly all their General Budget spending, from localised property taxes? How can Knowsley provide the same care for its elderly and vulnerable people as Westminster can, when its income from Council Tax and Business Rates is over 12 times its spending? 

I would emphasise another point though. Cllr John Muldoon and I have been arguing since the beginning of this administration that Lewisham is going bust and the issuing of a Section 114 Notice, akin to the raising of the financial white flag to the government, is inevitable. Initially our warnings were dismissed. Latterly the messaging has changed. Now it seems to be accepted that we are going bust, but only to the extent that all local authorities are going bust due to unremitting Austerity that is cutting local authorities’ incomes to below what is required to fund basic statutory services. Politically, in Lewisham, the view seems to be, as I have said before, ‘extend and pretend’. Extend the time-frame for setting proper balanced budgets that can be delivered and publicly pretend that things will be fine. And do this in the belief that there are many authorities that will go over the Section 114 cliff edge before Lewisham. Are we being complacent? Who really knows? However, what Barry’s analysis shows is that Lewisham may be further up the peloton that is racing towards bankruptcy than The Very Serious People, to borrow a phrase from the economist Paul Krugman,  in this administration realise.

NB I have added a copy of Barry's analysis here.  I'm afraid that it is very small.  I'll see if I can get a larger version.  Lewisham is in red.


Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The Lewisham Mayor's proposed Council Budget 2019/20 - A Point Of View

Below is the text of an email I sent to Cllr Jim Mallory, the Chair of Lewisham's Public Accounts Select Committee, of which I am a member:

There are two elements to the proposed 2019/20 Council budget about which I have expressed concern. The first is the proposal to set the base budget for Children’s Social Care (CSC) at £45.7m, some £7.5m less than the forecast spend for the current financial year. There is a proposal to top this up with a ‘once off’ additional sum of £5.4m. But this still leaves a shortfall of £2.1 between the total budget and this year’s forecast spend. The broader context is that last year, when the service overspent by £12.6m, we still spent £2.9m less on the service than we are estimated to spend this year. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the service faces budget pressures that will push spend even higher than the £53.2m expected to be spent this year. It was this background of ever-increasing demand led spend outstripping inadequately set budgets that led Bill Root, commenting in a report commissioned by the former Chief Executive and received by the Council’s Public Accounts Select Committee (PASC), that it was inappropriate to describe the situation as an ‘overspend’. Yet given this state of affairs, we are being asked to believe that we will actually spend £2.1m less this year than last and, on top of this, we will be able to take out a further £5.4m from the service next year. This, to my mind, is unrealistic. To provide £5.4m on a ‘once off’ basis merely pushes a budget pressure down the road to next year. It is akin to planting an unexploded bomb in the budget. Under questioning, we were told that in fact it may not actually be a ‘once off’ provision. It may have to be reprovided the year after next. This raises more questions than it answers. Why carry forward this destabilising budget pressure to future years when recognition that it will have to be met will generate the need for further cuts? Surely it would be better to put the £5.4m into the base with the hope that, if its provision does turn out to be ‘once off’, then the Council can realise a very welcome saving? What is the process and timeline by which it will be decided whether this £5.4m is ‘once off’ or will need to be reprovided? The truth is, I suspect, that funding has been provided in this way to avoid the £5.4m showing up an ‘overspend’ in next year’s budget monitoring, while side stepping the need to make the cuts necessary to fund it if it was put into the base. This is bound to give cause for concern. 

By way of reassurance, we are told that considerable effort is being made to transform the service so as to drive down the costs of placements. This is nothing new. Although I didn’t shout about it quite so loudly, we attempted to do this for every one of the 4 years that I was Cabinet Member for Children & Young People (CYP). This administration may succeed where I failed. But if we assume that if we did nothing then CSC spend would be around £56.2m next year (£53.2 from last year plus £3m of assumed budget pressure) then by agreeing this budget, we are being asked to accept that the service will find £10.5m of savings next year (56.2m less £45.7m). This surely is a heroic assumption. To be frank, it’s fanciful. 

My second area of concern relates to the reserves. We are told that the reserves have been prudently husbanded through the better years to help us in time of greatest need. Now that day has arrived due to unremitting Tory Austerity. So now is the day when we must draw them down to fund vital services for our community. When I was Cabinet Member of Resources our non-earmarked, rainy day, ‘in case of emergency break glass’ reserves stood at £15m. We were told at the last PASC meeting that they now stand at £13m. This year the Council, if memory serves, is expected to overspend its budget by about £10m. Last year it overspent by about £15m. The year before it overspent by about £12m. We have overspent by about £37m in the last 3 years. Where has this money come from? Clearly not these ‘rainy day’ reserves. The answer appears to be the earmarked reserves. The report says that we have used £20.3m of these reserves to fund the General Fund this year and plan to use £15.9m next year. Again, this raises more questions than it answers. As these are earmarked reserves, what were they earmarked to fund? If we spend these earmarked reserves on funding things for which there were not earmarked, what budget pressures are we storing up for the future? What is the opportunity cost we are being asked to bear? What risks are we exposing ourselves to? On these matters the report is silent. 

The broader context to all this, of course, is that Tory Austerity is driving local government into the financial buffers. Some time ago, I wrote that every Council in the country is like a car that is heading towards a cliff edge. Every car is desperately trying to slow down as they approach the precipice. They know they will not be able to stop in time. They just hope that they will not be in the first group to go over the edge in the hope that the sight of some cars plunging to the rocks below will somehow be enough to get someone to see sense and bring the whole ghastly situation to an end. In this story, the cliff edge is going bust, a section 114, and the deceleration is the implementation of the cuts. It seems to me that, although we all accept that local government generally is eventually going to run out of money to fund its statutory services like social care and waste collection, if the announced programme of Austerity is implemented, no one wants to accept that their own Council is actually going to do so. What we appear to want to do instead is to kick the can down the road and just hope that something turns up to save the day. Or, to borrow a phrase from the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, which he used to describe the policy of the Troika to deal with a bankrupt Greece, we extend and pretend. In our case we extend credit to ourselves from our reserves and pretend that everything will be all right in the end. This policy was understandable in the run up to the 2015 election when it was reasonable to assume that there was a strong possibility that Labour at the very worst would emerge as the largest party in Parliament. It was not after this and was even less so after the General Election of 2017. 

How can we expect to generate the outrage and alarm amongst our residents to generate the kind of protest that has any hope of stopping Austerity, unless we tell them the truth about the Council’s financial position and what this means for their services? Extend and pretend are antithetical to this. In order to tell the truth to the people we represent we first need to face up to it ourselves. The truth is that we are running out of money. Even if we closed every library and leisure centre, cut all the third sector grants and ended the Assemblies and the Young Mayor programme, we would not make the cuts we need to set a balanced budget in 2021/22. Failing to be honest about this merely serves the Tories’ interests. 

Yet a concentration on Austerity, though entirely justifiable, shifts the focus away from our own internal failings that also need to be addressed as we seek to modernise the Council. I have already mentioned the £37m recent overspend. At the end of the last administration I was invited, along with the Mayor and the rest of the Cabinet, to brief the consultants who had been engaged to help us recruit a new Chief Executive as to the kind of candidate we were looking for. Some colleagues talked about the need to appoint someone who shared the vision of the likely new administration and would lead on building the new partnerships required to deliver it. I said that this wouldn’t be my priority as there would be no money to invest in this. I argued that what the Council needed was a new Chief Executive who could get to grips with the parlous state of its finances. The Council had a track record of setting budgets that contained savings that proved to be undeliverable, witness the recent large overspends, and that this was evidence of management failure that was in urgent need of being addressed. 

One of the reasons that I regretted the early departure of the new Chief Executive who was subsequently appointed was that it represented a lost opportunity for a fresh start. A new senior leader would have brought a valuable new external perspective on an organisation that had been run by an Executive Management Team (EMT) that had seen little change in many, many years. There is no agreed time frame to recruit the next Chief Executive. The existing EMT will probably be in place now for the rest of this year. We will be expecting them to deliver savings and service transformation that they have not previously been able to achieve. 

At the beginning of this financial year it was reported to PASC that the overspend in Children’s Social Care had doubled. The report said that this was due to a big expansion of expensive placements in the final quarter of 2017/18. Under cross examination, it was conceded that this was implausible. It was subsequently admitted that reason for the massive increase in the reported overspend was the fact that it was under reported in the previous quarters because of inaccurate financial reporting due to inadequate financial management systems. My understanding is that, in consequence of this intervention by PASC, an addendum had to be added to the report that went to Mayor & Cabinet. At a subsequent meeting of PASC the weaknesses in financial management that led to the under reporting of the CSC overspend was explained more fully. The explanation relating to the big increase in expensive placements hasn’t been spoken of again. It seems to have disappeared from our collective corporate memory, although it is probably still in the original report that is on the Council’s website. The fact that officers presented a report in public to elected members which contained a false and misleading statement has never, to my knowledge, been addressed. No one has been held accountable for it. We seem to have subconsciously decided to draw a veil over it and not mention it again. 

As well as being honest about the state of the Council’s finances and what this will ultimately mean for service provision, we need to be honest about the organisation’s management weaknesses. An organisation that is not sufficiently self-critical will not flourish. I say to team members in my own business, if the most insightful, penetrating and accurate criticism about our gallery comes from the outside, then we are lost. 

Some people have said that I bear a large part of the blame for the current state of the finances, especially as I was Cabinet Member for Children & Young People from 2014 until 2018. There is plenty I can say in my defence. However, I am content to point out that I made a decision not to seek any position in this administration and part of my reasoning was based on my belief that I had a duty to take responsibility for the failures that had taken place under my watch. I did seriously consider not standing for the Council in 2018 but decided in the end that I would have some counsel to offer from the backbenches which if not exactly wise, would be from an experienced perspective. 

Others have asked me what I would do faced with the current situation. I put forward some ideas 18 months ago. Those who are interested can view them here

In order to support the proposed Budget we must express confidence in the opinions and beliefs of the Mayor, Lead Members and Senior Officers and the reassurances they give in response to our doubts. In short, we are being asked for our trust. My response is to quote the old Russian proverb – Trust, but verify. My view is that in this, as in all things, we must hope for the best, but plan for the worst. So far we are being asked to do plenty of the former whilst the Council does very little of the latter.