In a Westminster Hall debate on local government funding this week, Tom Blenkinsop, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said:
Both unitary authorities in my constituency, Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland, have faced significant challenges and are set to face even more owing to the cuts imposed on them by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Under a budget recently proposed by the independent mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon, 300 jobs are set to be axed and the Clairville stadium, the registry office, the TAD centre and the Middlesbrough teaching and learning centre are set to close. Elsewhere, services will be reduced, with the opening hours of leisure centres, for example, being slashed. That is not to mention the significant cuts and job losses that have already occurred in Middlesbrough.
The situation in Redcar and Cleveland is similarly bleak, with the council forced to reduce front-line services such as youth services and to make compulsory redundancies, as so many jobs have been lost that there are very few people left who are willing to take voluntary redundancy or early retirement.
What is Mr Blenkinsop doing as the local MP to demand that these two councils protect services by running them jointly? The annual savings in back office costs by the tri-borough arrangements in Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster will reach £43 million by 2015/16. How much have Mr Blenkinsop’s councils saved in management costs through joint working? Nothing much.
Middlesbrough Council places 51 children in children’s homes. That is 14 per cent of the children in care – well above the national average. It involves disastrous outcomes for the children and a cost to Council Taxpayers in Middlesbrough of £7.65 million a year. Is the number really down to the minimum possible? What is Mr Blenkinsop doing about it?
Instead of looking for savings in those areas, Mayor Mallon is halving the frequency of litter picking and street cleaning to save £198,000.
But what of Mr Blenkinsop’s reference to the Clairville Stadium closing? That will provide a saving of £104,000 a year. But there is a bit more to it than that. There will be 153 new homes on the site. The Clairville Stadium has a 400-metre athletics track. So that will go. However there will be a new one at the new Prissick Sports Village. The changes sound like a net gain to me. Mr Blenkinsop might disagree, but to present it simply as being about cuts is misleading.
I also suspect Mr Blenkinsop is being unfair to the (Labour-run) Redcar and Cleveland Council in suggesting that their review of the youth service is just about cutting spending. Their report notes that one of their youth centres has an average weekly attendance of only three people. It is in the Saltburn Ward which is in Mr Blenkinsop’s constituency. There is no proposal to close it but the report considers whether greater collaboration with other bodies and greater involvement of volunteers could provide a better service, as well as one at reduced cost. Does Mr Blenkinsop really dismiss such a possibility?
It is not true that all the spending cuts by his two local councils are causing service cuts. Nor is true that where services are being cut there are no alternatives.
It would be better if Mr Blenkinsop spent less time shroud waving in Westminster Hall and more time in his constituency encouraging his Labour councillors to provide residents with value for money.