Is Greenwich Council hiding from discussing £62m of cuts?

Lucky Greenwich borough residents – you’ll be getting the first edition of council propaganda rag Greenwich Time through your letterboxes this week. It’s one to cherish and save for your children, for alongside the TV guide, a dig at Boris Johnson on the letters page and a front-page howler describing Woolwich’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital as being in Charlton, it contains a new year message on page three from the council’s Dear Leader himself… strike up the fanfare!

As all good students of misleading tabloids know, the real juice is always buried on page two. Eyes left…

Buried away here is confirmation that Greenwich Council now expects to make £62m of cuts over the next four years, following the government’s budget settlement. You’ll find something similar buried away on the council website – no link from the front page at the time of writing.

Based on the Government’s announcements, the Council has estimated that its funding will reduce by £62m over the next four years.

For six of the last 12 years the Council Tax in Greenwich has been frozen and during this period it has risen by less than the rate of inflation.

From experience, the Council knows that further savings or efficiencies are possible. However, we believe that targets to cut budgets on this scale cannot be delivered without an impact on all services we fund and the voluntary sector.

There’s also news of the first tranche of cuts – but no news on what’s actually being cut. (Thank heavens for pesky sadcases with blogs, eh?)

The Council agreed budget reductions of £21.4m at the Cabinet meeting on 14 December 2010.

When added to the £5.8m of reductions approved in June 2010, this provides an initial £27.2m towards the eventual target Greenwich will be required to reach.

Unfortunately, there’s no minutes from this cabinet meeting, nor from the overview and scrutiny committee which took place the week before, so we can’t see what our selected elected representatives have had to say about proposals like cutting funding from Maryon Wilson Park animal centre, Blackheath fireworks, spinning off the youth service, doubling car parking and day care charges, and all the rest.

Which, as a Charlton ward resident with all three councillors on the overview and scrutiny committee, is frustrating because I’d like to see what the people who represent me and my neighbours have to say about cuts to council services.

And where’s the space for the public to discuss all this? From this council statement, these cuts are a done deal. But what about the next full council meeting, due on 26 January? That’s the only forum where the public can ask questions and make representations. Shouldn’t the cuts be rubber-stamped then, with a debate on the budget? After all, what’s the point in electing local councillors if they don’t have a chance to raise questions on our behalf?

In fact, actually, the full council meeting will discuss and approve (or, in theory, reject) all this – it’s legally obliged to agree the council tax for 2011/12, and it’s due to do that on 26 January. But why isn’t Greenwich Council telling us this? What’s it running away from?

Perhaps is Greenwich is trying to avoid the scenes saw in Lewisham, where violence erupted outside the town hall in November. But it’s our right to know what our council is doing with our money, and our right to pose questions at that meeting. It’s understandable that the council would want a quiet life, but that’s not what these people are elected or paid for. There’s people’s jobs and services at stake, and we deserve better than to have all this shoved under the carpet by a council leadership desperate to avoid scrutiny.

(Fanfare from London Banqueting Ensembles.)

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