As we crank up for the South Shields byelection, the Labour Party starts in an equivalent position of municipal dominance, as the Lib Dems did in Eastleigh. Of the councillors in the wards that make up the constituency, all but one are Labour. All the wards – Beacon and Bents, Biddick and All Saints, Cleadon Park, Harton, Horsley Hill, Simonside and Rekendyke, Westoe, West Park, Whitburn and Marsden, Whiteleas – come under South Tyneside Council. (Cllr Jane Branley is an independent councillor for Westoe who has applied to be a Labour councillor but has been rejected.)
This dominance may well be of relevance when it comes to the arrogant and intolerant attitude to opposition. For instance, in spending of £142,000 of Council Taxpayers money on legal fees in an attempt to discover the identity of a blogger known as Mr Monkey.
No doubt the byelection campaign will feature lots of synthetic outrage from the council about spending cuts. In fact they had an underspend of £176,000 last year and an underspend on £2.8 million the previous year. There were real cuts in spending. In 2010/11 the council spent £173 million. In 2011/12 it was £162 million. In 2013/14 it is budgeted to be £157 million. That's cash – in "real terms" with inflation the cuts are sharper.
But the savings have been achieved through cutting layers of management. There was (quite rightly) some complaint about using plastic flowers rather than real ones in the hanging baskets outside the town halls. That was about it.
If total public spending had been cut nationally at the same rate as South Tyneside Council, we would have a budget surplus.
This is not to say that the council could not provide better services at a lower cost. It spends £25.5 million a year on interest. That is getting on for half of its Council Tax revenue. This is the council that spent £3,250 on flights to an international magic convention. It has cut library opening hours, spurning the chance of volunteers to help maintain the service.
South Tyneside Council is letting children down by keeping so many of them in care. There are 260 of them that the council is responsible for. That equates to 106 per 10,000. That figure is nearly twice the national average and compares to an average for the north east of 78. Why should it be 66 per 10,000 in Durham but 106 per 10,000 in South Tyneside?
This is a council which has cried wolf over spending cuts. There is clearly scope for it to absorb far more without cutting services.