Today is #OurDay the annual effort by the Local Government Association to draw attention to everything councils do on behalf of local communities.
Under the Conservatives, local government has been hit far harder than any other part of the public sector (because it’s always easier to make other people take the tough decisions) and yet councils are responsible for many of the services citizens depend upon every day, from roads and rubbish collection, to homes and parks, to schools and social care. Despite the cuts passed down by central government, councillors and officers have gone on fighting for their local areas.
In Crawley, I’m proud that after four and a half years as Leader, Crawley is still able to spend the same amount on services as when I took office. It wasn’t easy, we’ve worked hard to find the money, but Crawley is worth it, and along the way we’ve built 1,000 new affordable homes and made big steps forward preparing the town’s economy for the future.
Christmas is almost here and the council has been working hard for months to deliver a programme of events fit for the season. Including, following years of residents’ requests, securing another Christmas ice rink for Crawley, this year even bigger and better than last.
As the cold sets in, I’m reminded that much of my focus over recent weeks has been taken up with the fight to save Crawley Open House from closure, following West Sussex County Council’s plan to cut their grant to zero.
Every council is facing tough financial choices following years of austerity, but making up budget gaps by taking money from the homeless cannot be the right thing to do and the way the local community has rallied round to support our campaign demanding West Sussex County Council reverse their proposals has really shown the difference in how people look out for each other in Crawley.
People don’t care who’s responsible for a service, they just want things fixed. I get that and as an elected representative it’s infuriating to have to tell residents that we either lack the legal authorisation to resolve an issue they’ve raised or that the Government has given the money to pay for it to an organisation which is unwilling to spend it to solve the problem.
The one which occurs most often is the division between Crawley Borough Council and West Sussex County Council, which is can be so confusing even councillors aren’t sure who is responsible for what. I often joke with people an easy rule of thumb in Crawley is if there’s a problem, it’s probably the county council’s fault. Sadly, when I talk to residents that’s almost always true.
The confusion over who’s responsible probably isn’t helped by Crawley stepping-in to improve services where West Sussex are responsible but under-performing, with Crawley tax payers essentially forced to pay twice for the same service and Crawley getting the blame for ongoing county council cuts.
Nonetheless, we’ll always do what we can to resolve issues with the money and powers Government allows us to have, regardless of who’s technically responsible. Two proposals coming to the next Cabinet meeting highlight this.
The first is a measure to try and tackle the blight of abandoned shopping trolleys. For years we’ve encouraged supermarkets to take responsibility and some have tried, yet the problem persists. So, we’ve dug through old legislation and found an alternative, enabling council workers to collect the abandoned trollies and return them to the supermarkets with a fine.
The second is an Order which will ban the car cruising which has turned Crawley’s streets increasingly dangerous and noisy at night. This is an issue the Police have been struggling to tackle using existing laws, but following Crawley’s decision here-on-out anyone participating in any such gathering will be eligible for an on-the-spot fine. The behaviour of such groups is a risk to the public, is causes disruption for residents in neighbouring areas and it’s time it came to an end.
What started out as a normal Saturday for two of Crawley Borough Council’s Community Wardens, ended with them preventing two young people from taking their own lives.
On 18 August, Christopher Oakley and Stuart Adesilu were called to assist Civil Enforcement Officers (CEOs) with removing a couple from the roof of Orchard Street Car Park who were refusing to cooperate.
CEOs respond to issues when on patrol around the town’s car parks and will call for the Community Wardens’ back-up when required.
Chris said: “On this occasion, the couple were sat on the roof drinking and refusing to leave. So we attended with the intention of seizing their alcohol and asking them to move on, which is fairly standard procedure.”
The couple were adamant they weren’t leaving so the Wardens considered the involvement of the police. However, as they weren’t being anti-social, they anticipated their presence would be unlikely.
After a short conversation, the situation soon escalated when the male mentioned that four years to the day, his brother had taken his own life, turning an ordinary call-out for the Wardens into a situation with a potentially life-changing ending.
Chris continued: “We could see he was suffering and started to cry saying he wanted to join his brother.”
The Wardens tried reasoning with him, urging him to use one of the many helplines available to talk to someone about what he was going through. At that point his girlfriend walked away to the other end of the roof and Stuart followed to make sure she was OK. After five minutes of talking, the young man then attempted to jump off the roof of the car park.
Thankfully Chris leapt into action, grabbing the young man’s ankle, using his weight to pull him back down, calling for Stuart’s assistance. Witnessing the scene, however, caused the female to also attempt to take her own life. Stuart quickly prevented this from happening, moving her to safety.
Police were called at this point and promptly detained the couple.
Leader of Crawley Borough Council, Councillor Peter Lamb said: “This story could have had a very different ending if it had not been for the quick actions of Chris and Stuart. They showed great compassion and care in a very difficult situation and I am proud to have them as part of the team here at Crawley Borough Council.”
Both Chris and Stuart’s actions have been recognised by the council for their exceptional handling of a very sensitive situation.
If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, call the Samaritans on 116 123.
I’m aware that a number of mistruths are being circulated around about this, so in the interests of fairness I thought you might like a true account of events.
When Springboard opened they decided to take on a commercial property at a commercial rent. At this time all the risks were highlighted to them, but they decided to take on the property nonetheless and various public sector organisations provided grant funding to help set the property up and pay for some of the running costs.
Last year I met with the new chief executive of the charity who flagged up that they were in financial difficulties, that he understood the circumstances under which the charity had taken on the property but that they were struggling. At the time I agreed to look at freezing the rent and guaranteeing the council’s grant funding for a number of years and I was given to understand that that might be enough to ensure the charity’s presence in the town. I looked into it and reported back that we could commit to such an arrangement.
When I met with the chief executive again in February I was informed that the charity’s financial position had worsened and that freezing the rent and guaranteeing the grant would not be enough for the charity to be able to maintain its presence in Crawley. I said that we weren’t in a position to commit to the tens of thousands of pounds in additional funding which were requested, but that we’d be willing to form part of a solution alongside WSCC and the CCG who have legal responsibility for the groups Springboard works with.
For some reason this was not seen to be seen as an acceptable solution and I did not hear anything further until I was informed Springboard were closing.
Springboard are not closing because we were increasing the rent (despite their signing up to that contract), nor because of any cuts to their grant funding by CBC but because their financial position worsened due to the loss of a major donor and Crawley Borough Council were not in a place to make up the gap without the support of the two organisations legally responsible for Springboard’s client group.
It is very sad that the charity is closing but it is not though any unreasonable behaviour on the council’s part, particularly when you consider we were the only organisation which expressed a willingness to help despite having no formal remit to do with Springboard’s work.
A Post Office is a service every community needs, yet there are changes afoot which put at risk the future of this service in Crawley. Post Office Limited are consulting on changes which would see the current Crawley Post Office closed, with services moving into WH Smith. Unlike Royal Mail, the Post Office remains wholly owned by the Government and they argue this will safeguard local provision, but in practice it’s simply another cost-cutting measure by a publicly-owned organisation in a time of austerity. I’ve nothing against efficiency, but genuine efficiency means getting more out of less, getting less for less is simply a cut.
There are major problems with the proposal. Go into the Post Office at any time and despite the large number of counters you will see people queuing, it’s hard to imagine that number of counters going into the much more lightly staffed WH Smiths. The range of services Post Offices provide also go way beyond selling people stamps, they provide various Government services, such as renewing of driving licenses, with all the associated biometric equipment required. Will all these services still be available in a stationers?
Perhaps the worst impact to my mind is that on those with mobility issues, who will go from being able to park in free bays immediately outside the Post Office, to paying to park in the County Mall multi-storey and then having to make their way across the entire mall to access the service. Accessibility alone should make the proposal unacceptable, particularly given that many of those with such issues are of an age where they are more likely to need to access services physically at a Post Office.
Lastly, what are the guarantees that the Post Office remains if the store goes under, as has happened to so many major chains in recent years. That’s before we consider redundancies and the impact of the vacant building on the Town Centre.
This proposal is bad for residents, bad for workers, simply bad for Crawley and I would encourage every resident to let the Post Office know by emailing email@example.com
The Budget is in and everyone is pawing over the detail to see how they come out of it, something which for local authorities won’t become clear until a further announcement later in the year.
As a council leader you might expect my main concern would be what Crawley Borough Council gets out of the Budget, but that’s not the case. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot we could do for Crawley with more money, but since taking control of the council Labour has worked hard to find money to replace anything we’ve lost from central government, meaning we’re still spending the same on services today as we were when I became Leader.
No, what bothers me is other public services, those which didn’t take Crawley Labour’s approach, leading to services suffering cuts year-on-year. These are services residents depend upon, they’re the services I now receive the most complaints about and yet they’re services over which Crawley Borough Council has no control.
One bit of good news is that West Sussex County Council is set to receive new funding for several areas they’re facing cost pressures, further undermining the argument that closing homeless hostels is necessary to balance their budget.
But, locally that’s where the good news ends. While there was money in the Budget for the NHS, the General Practitioners Committee has raised concerns that none of it is committed for GP provision. In Crawley, our GP provision is in desperate need for financial support, with people struggling to access care and the body responsible for funding healthcare in Crawley has been in Special Measures due to a lack of money since Summer last year.
The Police too are in desperate need of investment to replace the 700 officers lost in our area under the Conservatives, with hundreds more at risk due to proposed pension changes. Yet there was no money in the Budget to help the Police tackle the increase of drugs and violence in Crawley.
Decent public services cost money, yet under this Government they appear to have no chance of getting it, leaving residents to suffer.
Following the rise of violence on Crawley’s streets over recent months, Crawley Labour has launched a petition to ensure the voice of local residents is clearly heard by Sussex’s Police and Crime Commissioner, who is responsible for setting the budget for the town’s police.
Since 2010, the number of police officers in the local area has declined by over 700 and Crawley has lost its designated neighbourhood PCSOs, while residents across the town have complained about decreasing police responsiveness, drug selling moving out into residential areas and increasing knife-crime.
The petition calls upon the Police and Crime Commissioner to ensure Crawley that is allocated the officers it needs to restore a meaningful response for those who contact the police, and to end the wave of drugs and violence which has recently plagued the town.
Cllr Peter Lamb, Crawley Council Leader and Parliamentary Candidate for Crawley, said:
“It’s common sense that if you take hundreds of police officers off of our streets, law and order is going to suffer. Local residents regularly complain to me about the declining responsiveness from the police and I’m determined to ensure that Crawley’s voice is heard loudly and clearly by Sussex’s Police and Crime Commissioner.”
The Police have had a difficult time over recent years. In our area alone over 700 officers have been lost since the Conservatives entered Government and even with a recent boost in recruitment, the service is forced to go on operating with hundreds fewer officers than they had just a few years ago.
Despite the denials, the consequences of this are plain, with the rise of knife-crime on our streets and regular reports from residents of drug dealing taking place on their doorsteps. It’s common sense: if you cut police numbers, law and order suffers.
While I’ve no direct say over how the police operate, as council leader people often reach out to me to express frustration when they find calls to 101 going unanswered, when officers won’t respond to a break-in taking place on their property or when children launching fireworks at cars goes ignored.
There is no excuse why, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, residents should be forced to wonder whether if the worst happens the emergency services will actually respond, if they can even be reached. Yet, even if the big stuff could be addressed, much of what was once taken for granted is no longer being delivered by the police.
We were told earlier this month that Sussex Police will no longer deal with lost property. While that is a very minor thing to lose the range of antisocial behaviour issues now going unaddressed, when the police are the only ones with the power to act, is not minor, it has a big impact on the life of a community.
Nationally, Labour has committed to putting another 10,000 police officers back on the beat, if elected into Government. It is sorely needed, but Crawley shouldn’t have to wait for another General Election to get the policing residents deserve. That’s why I’m campaigning locally with Crawley Labour members to put pressure on Sussex’s Police and Crime Commissioner to allocate the town the policing resources we need to ensure that once residents’ once again know that when they contact the police they will get a meaningful response.
In under seven weeks, almost 15,000 people have signed petitions stating:
‘This petition demands that West Sussex County Council rejects the proposed cuts to Housing Related Support, which will cause untold misery for the most vulnerable members of our society, and instead maintains this vital support for our local homeless.’
The message is clear: West Sussex residents are calling upon county councillors to rule out cuts to Housing Related Support, not just to put them out to consultation, not to delay them until the budget-setting meeting and not to express personal concerns before ultimately voting them through.
While district-tier councils, as housing authorities, deliver statutory housing functions, this funding is about West Sussex meeting its duty of care to vulnerable adults, part of the council’s social care role. In fact since 2003, West Sussex has received tens of millions in dedicated funding from central government precisely to meet those obligations. In 2011, that funding was base-lined into the county council’s grant, meaning elected members are free to decide how to spend the money in fulfilling the council’s responsibilities. Following a question on the proposed cuts I had raised in Parliament, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for MHCLG, said:
“[I]t is for local authorities, who are independent of central government, to make decisions on spending and manage their budgets in line with locally determined priorities.”
That means it’s up to individual county councillors to decide whether this funding is worth maintaining. Let’s be clear exactly who depends upon these services, it’s rough sleepers with nowhere to go, women fleeing domestic abuse, children exiting care and older people who need help to stay in their own homes. The people this money is there to support are the most vulnerable members of our society, people who count on us to stand up for them.
No one doubts the county council faces tough financial choices, least of all other councillors, but prevention is key to cutting costs. As Cllr Daniel Humphreys, Leader of Worthing Borough Council, recently told members of Adur and Worthing Councils:
“I suspect that if this money was taken away the people who are being supported would probably just end up back on the doorstep of County Hall needing other forms of Adult Services anyway.”
When we remove at-home support from older people, they are forced into nursing homes. When we push children out of supported housing they become a new generation of street homeless. When we leave people on the streets, every part of the public sector feels the effects. The costs just keep going up.
There is another way, other councils have successfully focused on generating new revenue instead of making efficiencies, but even when it comes to cuts we’ve shown there are far better alternatives than this. Residents, charities, local MPs, councillors and council leaders, and even the Government has made it clear West Sussex doesn’t have to make these cuts, it is up to members of the county council to now decide if they will stand with us in supporting the vulnerable.