Sir Robin Wales, the directly elected Labour Mayor of Newham replies to criticism from Conservatives in his borough earlier this week
As the Labour Mayor of Newham you might be surprised to find me writing on a Conservative blog. I want to challenge the claims made by the East Ham Conservatives about ‘wasteful’ spending at Newham Council and to talk about the responsibilities politicians have with new transparency.
We need to get beyond this simplistic approach to headline grabbing, typified by this initiative and by recent statements from CLG. Yes, we are taking efficiency measures – joint procurement, regrading staff, reducing senior management pay and headcount – but it is simply not true to say that this will address the unprecedented cuts being levelled at local government.
The East Ham Conservatives claimed they:
“scoured the spending records covering late November and early December 2010 to find that despite job losses and unilateral changes to workers pay and conditions, the Council still spent £349,392.52 on food, consultants, advertising and other fripperies.
As a Council we work hard to ensure we deliver high-quality services to our residents for the best value possible – we have frozen Council tax for the past three years and, despite providing a wider range of services than most, we have the lowest council tax in outer London. But we are always looking for ways to be more efficient – we're a big organisation and there will always be savings to find.
I make no apology for much of the expenditure they choose to attack – it is not wasteful spending. For example, the majority of the supposed waste spent on “catering and catering facilities” provides free school meals. In Newham all primary school children get a free school meal every day. It is good for the kids’ education (evidence shows they concentrate better) and it puts £500 after tax back into the pockets of hard working parents – and it's working parents who see the advantage since people on benefit already get free school meals.
Now, I don't object to having an argument with any Conservative about whether this is a good and useful spend, but have the debate in that context. For the East Ham Conservatives to describe this investment in Newham’s children as a frippery shows that they either haven’t done their homework properly or that they are fundamentally out of touch with local people.
They’ve even criticised us for saving taxpayers’ money through exactly the type of measures recommended by Government Ministers. Through joint procurement – including with Conservative and Liberal Democrat areas – we have been able to secure a cheaper deal on electricity. So we pay a bill to Kent County Council who act as the coordinator for lots of councils in this area.
Other spending labelled ‘wasteful’ by the local Tories includes an event to celebrate our young people’s achievements, staff uniforms, advice on how to secure the Olympic Games legacy for our people and a free fireworks display which brings together the most diverse population on earth to have fun together. I understand that Westminster politicians may be apprehensive about marking the efforts of Guy Fawkes but for us these events help build community cohesion.
I will say however, that the local Conservatives in my area are merely following the extraordinary lead of Eric Pickles. He launched an attack on us for purchasing a central building into which we could concentrate much of our workforce – migrating our staff out of almost 30 separate buildings. We will have saved £12 million net by the end of next year on accommodation costs alone, never mind the savings we will realise by bringing together much of our back office workforce and reducing layers of management.
Councils up and down the country are already losing money – poorer areas more than the wealthy. We need a grown up debate about local government finance. At a time when politicians struggle for public credibility, we have a collective responsibility to raise the level of debate and drive out waste with proper scrutiny. That’s why I am more than happy to publish spending over £500 and I will watch with interest as that level of transparency shines a light throughout Whitehall. To misuse or abuse that transparency for short term political gain does us all a disservice.