At the meeting of the Executive of Sutton Council on Monday, Cllr Graham Tope spoke about the business plan for the controversial £8.5million Sutton Life Centre. As expected, the business plan was, to quote one Sutton insider, “optimistic”. Bearing in mind this is only to break even, Sutton taxpayers have every reason to remain worried about the burden that they will have to carry to hide the embarrassment of the Liberal Democrat administration.
Cllr Tope explained that “budgeting is not an exact science”, something that will come as news to business people up and down the country who realise that this is the polar opposite of the truth. Homeopathy is not an exact science. Budgeting, however, is a detailed appraisal of the future using case studies, market research, and an assessment of how best to use a certain amount of capital and income. Assumptions can be kept to a bare minimum by taking a pragmatic, not dogmatic view, something that does not come easily to the administration in Sutton.
The original budget for 2010-11 required £131,000 of taxpayers’ money to keep the fledgling Life Centre open. The latest update shows that they will have spent £190,000 over and above this,
a whopping 145% over budget. This is largely put down to an ‘underachievement of income’, a euphemism if ever there was one. One-off costs covered the remaining overspend. One of these costs was £40,000 for a website. Apart from the fact that this is an extraordinary amount to be spending in addition to the £208,000 Sutton Council spent on their main site, why is this an overspend? It is not beyond the wit of man to realise that a decent website would be needed to market the Centre. Why was this not included in the original budget? It is oversights like this that show why the Council believes that budgeting is not an exact science. You can’t just put a wet finger in the air before undertaking a massive project like this. The business plan
has more space given over to ‘One Planet Living’ than spreadsheets. There is nothing exact about ‘One Planet Living’ It really doesn’t matter how many planets you need to live on if they are all bankrupt.
Since the original concept came about, the Council won a Government grant of £4million. Following this, the scheme doubled in size to fit this extra money, rather than the sensible approach of keeping this vaguely within reason. The builders were already booked to start digging the day after the council meeting which approved the decision. After even the most intransigent fan of the Centre realised that most schools realised that parents did a better job of teaching their children how to behave and so failed to book places, other activities have been brought into the Centre to justify its existence.
- Ex-offenders will come along to be told not to re offend (could the money have not been used for Job Clubs and drug rehabilitation?)
- Council meetings and other community meetings will take place at the Centre (taking important income away from schools and other community facilities)
- A Life Clinic will be set up (No, I don’t know either?!)
- Some School Governors’ training will be held here (threatening the future of the Glastonbury Centre that has already been saved from imminent closure once)
Nick Clegg opened the centre at an event which was mainly attended by the senior management
of Sutton Council and Liberal Democrat councillors. Half a dozen children from nearby Glenthorne School came along as guinea pigs. It would be interesting to know quite how many thousands of pounds of lost productivity it took to have the great and the good at this corporate backslapping exercise.
The Sutton Life Centre is being held up as an example of the Big Society as part of Sutton Council’s status as a ‘Big Society Vanguard Council’. People are struggling to understand what the Big Society concept actually is and this project pushes that understanding further away from the truth. Big Society should be about people taking back areas from the state to be under their own control. It is about people not buildings. The Sutton Life Centre is anathema to the Big Society, instead standing as a paternalistic, patronising monolith that illustrates the real centralising views of Sutton’s Liberal Democrats; Power coming down from Whitehall is fine, as long as it stops at the Civic Offices, where politicians know best. That is not localism. That is not freeing individuals. That is just bringing the nanny state closer to home.
Have a look
and judge for yourself if the £40k website is worth it and the £8.5million (10% of council tax collected in the entire Borough for a year) was well spent
Last night, Sutton Council’s Liberal Democrat establishment rejected our fully-costed plans to cut the council tax by nearly 2% this year, and to freeze the tax for three years in a row thereafter. In a stunning act of arrogance one longstanding Liberal Democrat councillor said it was “a privilege to pay council tax” in an embarrassing outburst.
Above, you can read the budget response given by the Conservatives’ Finance and Value for Money Spokesman, Councillor Tim Crowley as he presented a costed Alternative Budget with details to cut the council tax by 1.75% and to provide a raft of new ground-breaking proposals.
Among the new positive proposals in the Alternative Budget were plans for a rewards scheme to pay residents for the amount of waste they recycle, an Armed Forces council tax discount of 50% and a new priority card for Sutton residents providing discounts in local shops and businesses, plus preferential rates for council services such as leisure centres, parking and theatres.
The Liberal Democrats’ budget provision for a council tax freeze was described as an election ploy after years of punishing above inflation increases. But an extraordinary outburst from Wallington Liberal Democrat councillor Richard Bailey left the Council’s leadership team red-faced when he described the payment of council tax as a “privilege”.
Councillor Crowley outlined savings which included reductions in the Council’s reliance on outside consultants, streamlining communications work, making Sutton Scene magazine entirely self-funding, and a freeze in additional staff recruitment with net savings of £1.472m – the same amount needed to cut council tax by 1.75%.
Commenting Tim Crowley said: “When the Liberal Democrats voted against our Budget they voted against a cut in council tax, against increased investment in training for adult social services, against a residents’ priority card for services and shops, and against a 50% discount for British soldiers on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We know what they are against but what are they for? Our Budget provides positive plans to put more money in residents’ pockets and to roll out a range of new popular proposals. It’s a shame that the Liberal Democrats could not put residents first and politics second to vote for this forward-thinking budget.”
Sutton Council’s Leader, Liberal Democrat councillor Sean Brennan, has no chance of being given the slip coming in and out of his office this winter due to an excellent service of no less than six grit bins less than 50 metres of his council office.
Last week’s Sutton Local Committee, scheduled to meet on Thursday in the Civic Offices, was called off by its Liberal Democrat chairman due to ‘weather conditions’ despite rapidly thawing snow and an elite phalanx of grit bins forming a vanguard for ease of access. Only two days before, 80 doughty residents of Carshalton came to the Baptist Church in Banstead Road to air their views and concerns at the Carshalton and Clockhouse Local Committee.
Discovery of the Leader’s grit reserve will rub salt into the wounds of residents who were left stranded in their homes due to ungritted roads. Residents were shocked to discover that the Council provides a mere one grit bin per 1200 residents.
Following news that Sutton has been reliant on borrowed grit due to diminishing stocks, and with snow predicted for later today, I am sure that Councillor Brennan could surrender some of his private grit reserves to needy areas in the Borough, for example council wards like Wandle Valley and Wallington North which have been left to cope each with one grit bin for an average population of 10,000 residents.
Sutton Council’s Liberal Democrat leader is very fortunate to have a crack squad of no less than six grit bins within a few yards of his office. And that’s not counting the two bins across the way outside the Holiday Inn showing that even his reserves have reserves!
Weather reports do not rule out more snowy and icy conditions, if the Council’s political leadership have not learnt their lesson from short-term cuts to the gritting budget, under provision of grit bins and lorries, Councillor Brennan should dip into his own stock to help residents out.
Whilst we cannot guarantee a platinum service matching the Council Leader’s, an incoming Conservative-run Sutton Council will substantially increase the number of grit bins across the Borough to ensure that residents can at least help themselves in treacherous icy conditions.”
The budget consultation has become an annual occasion in Sutton Council where the ruling Liberal Democrat group seek to do the bare minimum to get their budget through. Two years ago, their budget affecting 180,000 Sutton residents was passed after they got the views from only 22 residents in a six-week period. The Conservative group found 29 people to comment in ten minutes on Sutton High Street.
Bruised but not beaten, the administration more than tripled their response rate last year, talking to a paltry 72 people. Let’s face it, they could have acheived this by each speaking to a single person sitting next to them on the bus. We spent the six weeks seeking the views of more than 1000 people.
This year they have taken advice from their beefed-up communications department and lead councillors have hit the High Street in high visibility jackets to talk to people. I was ready to think that they have finally started to take communication a little more seriously until I saw the response level in the report going to the Cabinet tonight. 78 people had their answers recorded on questions such as would you speak highly of the council or which issue from a list should form the council’s priorities. Six weeks for eight cabinet members to speak to 78 people is taking the Howard Hughes approach to communication. The results of the consultation were only released on Friday evening. However, we like to do our bit to help the ruling group understand the people that they were elected to serve so we listened to 79 people over the weekend.
The priorities in the two surveys were varied but the one difference in the results that stood out like a sore thumb was the question asking “Which one of the statements come closest to how you feel about Sutton Council as a whole?” The three options were
1. I would speak highly of the council
2. I would be critical of the council
3. I would neither speak highly nor criticise the council
The headline figures from the official survey were that 50% of residents were advocates of the council, 22% critical and 18% neutral, with 10% not offering a comment.
Our figures told a different story. The figures were nearly reversed with only 23% of residents being advocates for the council, 43% being critical and 34% being neutral. All 79 respondents offered an opinion.
Looking at how closely the council’s priorities aligned with those of residents, their own survey showed the top three issues being helping to prevent crime, looking after adults who need extra help and providing things for young people to do. Our survey also had crime at the top with the next two being schools which provide the best possible start in life and keeping Sutton clean. The age profile of our survey was considerably younger than the council’s own consultation and closer to the recent Residents’ Survey which had a much larger sample.
It’s clear that the Liberal Democrat Executive members were only interested in chasing headlines rather than genuine opinions of the residents that put them in charge.
Full comparison of the two consultation results:
View Larger Map
We seem to be in for another heavy snow storm with 10 inches or so reported to be falling in London suburbs tonight and tomorrow. There is a list of grit bins on the Sutton website. Local resident Adrian Short has done a great job in mapping them on Google Maps. The Council website also has the latest news on school opening.
However, the list and map does highlight a significant gap in emergency planning. The Council lists 150 grit bins available for a population of over 180,000 residents. This means that there is, on average, only one grit bin for every 1200 residents. To add insult to injury, some areas have only one grit bin available to local residents whereas others have over thirty. The list on the council website demonstrates that the grit bin situation has not been reviewed for at least 7 years with one described as being outside Tesco on Sutton High Street, which was closed in 2003 to make way for Asda.
The recent cold spell has exposed Sutton Council’s weaknesses in winter road maintenance, causing outrage with local taxpayers after poor gritting efforts left many residents stranded in their own homes because roads and pavements turned into untackled ice rinks. Many residents who were willing to grit their own roads – out of necessity – were dismayed to find grit bins either empty or unavailable in their area.
Google Maps shows that access to gritting bins varies significantly from Ward to Ward. For example, the Carshalton South and Clockhouse Ward is well serviced with 33 gritting bins whereas the Wallington North, Wandle Valley and Nonsuch Wards languish with only one gritting bin each. Conservatives are now calling for an end to Sutton’s ‘post code lottery’ access to grit bins and for better preparation for icy road conditions in the future.
This is not the first time that the Liberal Democrat-run Council has provoked controversy over its winter highways policies. Last year the ruling Liberal Democrats slashed the winter highways maintenance budget by £20,000 in March only to later spend £16,000 on a state-of-the-art air conditioning system for the Council Leader’s Office in July.
The past month has shown how woefully ill-prepared Sutton Council is for icy and snowy conditions. I don’t blame our hardworking gritting teams, I blame the political leadership of the Liberal Democrats for short-sighted cuts to the highways budget.