I hadn’t been along to a full meeting of Portsmouth City Council since the days of the Parkway planning row, 20 or so years ago, but yesterday I made a return. There were a couple of contentious items on the agenda; although the decisions concerning them had already effectively been taken at Cabinet level, there is still plenty to debate, and will be in the future. In this chunk of blog I’ll give you a flavour of the debate on Sure Start. The Lib Dem council is faced with a need to make savings, and has decided to do so by cutting 21 front-line childcare posts. This has sparked outrage from parents and concerned residents, as you’ll see.
The meeting started with the Lord Mayor proceeding into the chamber behind the mace, prayers being said, and it started without Mike Hancock who turned up late. He looked relaxed in a cream blazer with a red handkerchief falling out of his breast pocket, and sat in the middle of the Lib Dem group. I guess we still call them his “colleagues” although he is pretending not to be a Lib Dem for Westminster purposes. Cllr John Ferrett asked Hancock later in the meeting if he is a Lib Dem at Council level or not, but couldn’t prise an answer from the usually-loose lips of our local feudal baron.
The Lord Mayor, Cllr Stagg, then warned councillors that in order to keep proceedings going, she was going to apply the rules of the radio game-show “Just A Minute”, fining councillors a pound for hesitation, repetition or deviation, proceeds to go towards her Lord Mayor’s Appeal. Councillors are generally restricted to 6 minutes per contribution to a debate, as are those presenting petitions or deputations. That’s a reasonable amount of time for any skilled speaker to outline their case.
The meeting got off to a start as Nikki Coles of Save Our Sure Start gave a moving speech in support of the petition to reverse the Lib Dem cuts to Sure Start. The essence of her case is that retaining centres themselves while cutting staff in them is no safeguard of the service; all centres will remain open, but some will be staffed by untrained staff in future instead of trained permanent staff.
The debate that followed was opened by Cllr Wood, the Cabinet member responsible for the decision. He wrung his hands over the difficulty of having to take decisions, but thanked the petitioners for their concern. Cllr John Ferrett for Labour reminded the council that the Lib Dems had been forced to moderate their plans in response to pressure from voters and the other parties but were nevertheless cutting the service by 48% in cash terms.
Conservative councillor Young pointed out that there remain doubts over the level of service next year, since the funding proposal from the Lib Dems can only be guaranteed this year. The Lib Dems have not solved the problem of funding Sure Start in the longer term. Cllr Jones highlighted the research done by Conservatives into securing “match funding” from outside bodies for Sure Start services. This is a fertile area for further research, and may well provide some security against further cuts by the Lib Dems next year. As Cllr Jones said, other ways of engaging parents in the Sure Start service such as allowing births to be registered at centres should be considered.
There were originally plans to reduce the number of Sure Start centres, which gave rise to a hilarious incident involving Cllr Madden (who was Labour for decades, but is now Lib Dem) and Cllr Gray (who was a Lib Dem for five minutes, but is now Labour).
Cllr Madden regretted that Sure Start campaigners had received a certain amount of criticism, and that he could not guarantee his party had not been involved. He disputed the notion that there had ever been plans to close centres. This brass-necked statement collapsed when Cllr Gray presented him with a copy of the council’s Flagship magazine (February 2013, page 25) which listed exactly the centre-closing proposal Cllr Madden denied ever existed.
Of course, what had happened was the administration came up with an even-more drastic proposal to cut the Sure Start service, but realised over time as popular fury grew that it could cut the staff and keep centres open and claim that “no service provision will be lost”.
The obvious problem with the adminstration’s strategy was succinctly nailed by Cllr Ken Ferrett who pointed out that some centres would be left with not much more service than a “caretaker and a bottle of bleach”. Sadly much of his speech was difficult to follow from the gallery due to Lib Dem barracking – he had clearly got under their skin with his remark.
Portsmouth’s panto villain, Cllr Lee Hunt, rose to boos from some in the gallery and decided to reply by criticising the petitioners for attacking the wrong target. The people to blame for the Sure Start problem, he said, were the bankers and the Labour Party for their folly before 2010. I am not sure why the Lord Mayor did not interrupt Cllr Hunt for “deviation” – so much for the “Just A Minute” rules. He even managed to contradict Cllr Madden, sitting in front of him, suggesting that we should not obsess about “bricks and mortar”. Most of us in the gallery took that to mean that in fact centres will close next time the Lib Dems cut Sure Start.
Cllr Andrewes, sadly, is one of those people who makes his allotted 6 minutes feel like a life sentence. The main point of his speech was to observe that if you’re strapped for cash, you have to shop in a different way in the supermarket. He said he would “like to spend the entire council budget on childrens’ services, but when you are in the supermarket you have to shop in a different way”. I think we counted about 8 repetitions of this odd analogy. My view is that if I’m not happy with the value for money a supermarket offers me, I shop somewhere else. I am sure voters will apply the same logic to choosing a political party next May when they tot up the money wasted by this administration.
Mike Hancock intervened to say that the process for taking petitions was flawed. This was a weird thing to say – it is not the petitioners’ fault. The system whereby Cabinet members take decisions and they are only rubber-stamped at full Council meetings is not a great one in terms of public accountability. If people felt their responses to consultations were being taken seriously, perhaps there would be fewer petitions? Cllr Hancock conveniently forgot the Palmerston Rd pedestrianisation consultation, which he ignored before he blew a fortune on the work.
Cllr Fazackerley intervened to say that he had only had 1 email on Sure Start but several asking that the Pyramids be kept open. And then he said “I’m not saying that I think Sure Start doesn’t matter” which is a strange thing to say after saying he thinks people care more about the Pyramids.
Cllr Vernon-Jackson did his usual “what would you cut instead?” routine, which is an exercise in chutzpah from the man who has just signed us up for another £5m of risk at the Pyramids. Cllr Wood wound up the debate, the administration’s response thanking the petitioners was carried at a vote, and after a short break the council moved on to the next business.
This isn’t the last we will hear about Sure Start, partly because the Conservatives have plans for improving the service, and partly because Lib Dem budgeting means we will all be back to square one next year. The parents and campaigners will keep up the pressure I am sure and will highlight any failings of the service to match the promises Cllrs Wood and Vernon-Jackson have been making.
I’ll come on to the remainder of the meeting, which was just as contentious, in the next chunk of blog.