Luton Council’s budget for 2011

The annual meeting to agree Luton Borough Council’s budget was held this month on Wednesday 16th February. I was there sitting on the Liberal Democrat benches in my role as a local councillor. As usual the meeting generated a lot of heat and only some occasional flashes of light, and as seems to be becoming a habit I probably ended up speaking too much.

Local government and the services that it provides face some significant challenges as a result of our current economic circumstances. You would think that this provides an awkward political problem for a Liberal Democrat who supports the coalition government but also is an elected member of a council forced to make cuts. Well it is not pleasant. You are constantly reminded that the decisions being made are effecting people’s jobs and services that they rely on. But I am not embarrassed or defensive about the role of my party nationally or locally.

Although you might not think it from a lot of the political arguments we have seen over recent months, all the major political parties are agreed that the UK needs to reduce its budget deficit. Yes, there is disagreement about how and how fast, but there is a consensus that it needs to be done. It was inevitable that this would have an impact on local government.

The Local Government Association describes the amount the government is providing to local councils as “the toughest settlement in living memory”. I have some issues with how the government have approached this local government settlement. I have very little time for the current Secretary of State for local government, Eric Pickles, and am very sympathetic to those Liberal Democrat local government leaders who wrote a letter to The Times attacking the front-loading of local government cuts imposed by central government.

However, even with a more competent and sympathetic minister and a different approach, the state of the public finances are such that Luton Borough Council, along with the rest of local government, would still be dealing with reductions in its funding.

The budget gap that the council expected to have to find before the general election last year was £16 million. The actual gap that the budget agreed by the council this February is seeking to fill with its proposed savings is £19.6 million.

This is a difference between now and before the election of £3.6 million.

So if you want to argue that the coalition government is imposing harsh cuts on the council you can in reality only claim that they are responsible for that extra £3.6 million. Now this is still a lot of money, but the truth is that whoever had won the last election the council would still have to find the vast majority of the current required savings. The reality is that the council would have to make severe cuts even under a Labour government.

To be fair to the Labour administration they are finding a lot of it by cutting back office functions and administration. I would argue for a far more radical restructuring of how the council does things myself, but the savings programme includes some long overdue efficiency in council bureaucracy. Although Labour wouldn’t admit it, a task made easier by the coalition government’s decision to drastically cut back on the form filing and box ticking that central government requires of local government.

However, it inevitably includes some significant cuts to public services. For example there is a £58,000 cut to the part of the council that carries out food premises inspections, a £116,000 cut to footpath repairs, the closure of the noise nuisance patrol service, the scrapping of the street warden scheme, the closure of The Mount elderly persons home, and changes to home care and day care provision. They did do a u-turn under pressure and changed their minds about a significant cut to street cleaning but that service still has to find £100,000.

In the council meeting I asked Labour’s finance spokesperson, Cllr Robin Harris, about the impact that the budget would have on the youth and community development services. His answer lacked details and I came away still uncertain about how precisely these services will be effected. He did promise that no community centre will close or have its hours reduced. So how they are going to find the £140,000 saving this year and the £230,000 next year as part of the “community development strategic budget review” remains a mystery. As to the youth service, we do know that the Wellbeck Youth Centre will close and that availability of personal advisors for young people is to be reduced.

But what the Labour party were even more reluctant to talk about was the overall scale of the problem. The savings the council has to find not just in this budget but over the next four years. For the financial year 2012 to 2013 the council needs to find further savings of £15.2 million. The budget that we have just passed contains an already identified £4.2 million of savings that will contribute to that.

That leaves a gap of £11 million still to find.

I don’t know whether the Labour administration at the Town Hall have worked out where those savings will come from or not, but I do know that they are not telling anyone. A cynic might say that they want to keep quiet about it until after this year’s local elections. I think a part of the answers is that they haven’t got a clue about how they are going to achieve it.

What worries me most is that the best way to find that £11 million, while having as little impact as possible on front-line services, is to start making decisions about how it is to be done now. That way more radical plans can be developed and can have time to be implemented. I see little evidence that those decisions are being made. Again, Labour’s tactic is to delay these hard choices until after the local elections.

Last year’s astroturfing of Luton South

I’m catching up on various bits of unfinished business. One of which is to look back at a little incident from the campaign in Luton South during last year’s general election.

Just before polling day for I asked on this blog the question “Is someone using Twitter for dirty tricks in Luton South?“.

This referred to the use of a Twitter account named ‘lutonliberal‘, by someone we in the local party had never heard of, for what appeared to be a, rather amateurish, attempt to boost the campaign of independent candidate Esther Rantzen.

What I didn’t mention back then was that I was following another account, ‘LutonSouth2010‘, which wanted to give the appearance of coming from a, presumably independent, “journalist/blogger” but whose tweets were again an attempt to boost Esther.

Looking back on it now I am convinced that someone was trying to astroturf for Esther’s campaign. A conclusion that is supported by the fact that, in the almost nine months since the election, neither  ‘lutonliberal’ or ‘LutonSouth2010′ have tweeted anything.

What is the significance of this?

Well, not a lot if I am honest. Particularly given the very modest vote that Esther received!

Yet, it is a useful reminder that those involved in future high profile elections should keep a wary eye on what is said on Twitter and importantly on who is saying it.

Cameron is wrong: multiculturalism has worked

Last Saturday wasn’t a particularly pleasant day for me for more than one reason. At the same time as I was witnessing how the people of Luton had been excluded from their own town centre by the EDL, David Cameron was making a speech in Munich that was reported as declaring that “multiculturalism had failed”.

At the time I felt, as did a number of other people I spoke to, that by making this speech on the same day as the EDL rally, and with no words of condemnation of the EDL’s extremism, Cameron had insulted Luton, Britain’s Muslim community, and all those who want a tolerant society free from discrimination. I was really quite angry about it. At that moment it would have been easy to agree with Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, who accused the PM of “writing propaganda for the EDL“.

Later I calmed down and had a chance to actually read the speech.

Afterwards, my strongest reaction to what Cameron had said was “is that it?”. For all the fuss that it had caused, for all the tabloid headlines, the speech itself was a very flimsy affair indeed.

On this issue I found myself agreeing with several commentators on the left, in particular these posts by Sunny Hundal and Sunder Katwala, who pointed out that the speech contained nothing new, nothing that hadn’t been said before and better by others, and that it was empty in that it would lead to nothing except a few favourable headlines in the Daily Mail and the like.

On reflection, the real problem I have with speech is not the playing to the tabloids, the carelessness of the timing, or the lack of anything new or meaningful in it, it is how it demonstrates a worryingly high level of prime ministerial ignorance.

It is useful to be reminded that one of the key differences between Liberals and Conservatives, as J. S. Mill would readily have pointed out, is that Tories tend to be more stupid.

At the heart of the stupidity of the speech is that it seeks to confuse the complex bundle of issues that is extremism, radicalisation, and home grown terrorist activity with the more general issue of community cohesion.

I am not saying that these two things are completely isolated from each other. But any public policy response to these issues that we want to succeed should be careful to distinguish between the two.

I don’t think we as nation have found the right response to the issue of extremism and domestic terrorism. We have a long way to go to truly understand what is going on and face up to the consequences. But if the Prime Minister genuinely believes that the answer to the horrible fact that some young British men are motivated to become suicide bombers and the like is to seek to impose on them some government defined sense of British identity then he really ought to get out more.

Oh, and I don’t really understand what he means by “muscular liberalism” unless he is suggesting that I should get myself down the gym?

But the evidence, if not the saloon bar rhetoric, suggests that we have got most of the answers right on how to achieve good community cohesion.

As Lib Dem peer Meral Hussein-Ece points out, even if we just focus on British Muslims, we find a majority who are well integrated and with a strong British identity.

“A survey last year of the first-ever study of Islamic interfaith relations across the world, carried out by Gallup and the Coexist Foundation, challenged the view that the country’s 2.4 million Muslims are largely intolerant of the British way of life. British Muslims were found to identify more strongly with the UK than the rest of the population, and have a much higher regard for the country’s institutions. 77% said they strongly identified with UK.

Furthermore it found that on average 78 per cent of Muslims identify themselves as British, compared with 49 per cent who consider themselves French and 23 per cent who feel German. Muslims also outscored the general public for their belief in courts, honest elections, financial institutions and the media.”

Now I wouldn’t want to gloss over the challenges and problems that many communities face. Some of which are very difficult indeed. But where there are problems the answers are to be found in building on a decades old legacy of implementing multiculturalism successfully.

But a key point here is that it is about building on the legacy multiculturalism.

A little research in writing this post has refreshed my knowledge. Faced with the challenge of immigration, Britain in public policy terms, from the 1960′s onwards, rejected the idea of assimilation (the concept of the ‘melting pot’) in favour of integration. The approach was to be, in Roy Jenkins’ classic definition, “not a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.

It was from the need to put this idea into practice that the concept of multiculturalism developed. Obviously, creating the tolerant, diverse, multicultural society we are today was a struggle. The battles fought under the banner of multiculturalism against discrimination and to gain public acceptance of equality were tough ones. Although there are still several battles to be fought, I think it would be fair to say that to a large extent the war has been won. If on occasions multiculturalism lost its way, and political correctness went mad, then that is a small price to pay, for example, to make racism socially unacceptable.

I found Sunder Katwala’s post really useful in putting Cameron’s speech into perspective. He points out that; “Debating “multiculturalism” has been a largely pointless dialogue of the deaf for several years, largely because critics and defenders of multiculturalism are mostly talking about starkly different ideas.”

He also reminded me that Trevor Phillips, then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and now chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, called for us to move beyond multiculturalism in Britain back in 2004. That most of the prominent defenders of multiculturalism have for a while now been on “the integrationist post-multiculturalism side of this debate”.

Those who work on issues of community cohesion, policy and practice, have already written the critique of multiculturalism. While defending and celebrating its historical successes, they have recognised its failures, acknowledged the need for a clearer focus on integration, and are busy developing new forms of practice. Cameron may have thought he was being cutting edge in Munich but, by being seemingly unaware of how the debate has already moved on, just looked out of touch. That boat has already sailed.

Luton is actually a good example of this. Again I make the point, we shouldn’t confuse the extremism of the EDL and those islamist groups that hit the headlines with the genuinely cohesive community that is Luton. And we are busy developing our own integrationist post-multiculturalism approach to tackling the real problems we have with community cohesion.

I have been meaning for sometime to blog about the recently published report of the Luton Commission on Community Cohesion. I will hope to sit down and have another read of it next week. But to me it looks a very good piece of work and a million miles from the caricature of politically correct right-on multiculturalism that Cameron was, presumably, trying to exploit on Saturday.

One of the great contradictions in that speech is that for many people, myself included, our successful legacy of multiculturalism, if defined properly, is a fundamental part of what it means to be British.

Follow up after the EDL rally

After a busy week I want to try and catch up on blogging related things this evening.

Although I feel I’ve probably written too much about the unfortunate rally by the English Defence League in Luton last weekend, I thought ought to do a post to follow up.

If you haven’t seen it, I wrote about my experience on the day here.

Luton rapidly got back to normal after the events on Saturday as the barriers were removed, the police left town, and the square was swept. I have heard there have been a few incidents of graffiti related to the EDL this week, but other than that there doesn’t appear to have been any immediate consequences. Whether there is any lasting damage to community relations within the town remain to be seen. I know that lots of people have been working really hard to ensure that there aren’t.

This is how the local press covered it:

In other media:

A choice of my favourite music of 2010

Over the last few years I have got into the habit of over Christmas and the New Year putting together a big playlist of all the songs that I have got into over the year. Although saying this is done over Christmas and the New Year is stretching it a bit. It has become something of a task and my playlist for 2009 took me well into last summer to finish.

However, last week I finished my 2010 version. To add a bit of variety to the blog I thought I would select some of the best and post them here.

If Rap Gets Jealous – K’naan

This is my most played track of 2010. Great for air guitar.

Drunk Girls – LCD Soundsystem

“Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut / It comes back but it’s never the same”

Ready To Start – Arcade Fire

I know Arcade Fire are supposed to be one of the biggest bands of the last few years, but I am only just discovering them myself. This is the song that has stayed in my head.

Paradise Circus – Massive Attack

I spotted this one when it was used as the theme for the BBC’s crime drama Luther.

Angel Echoes – Four Tet

La Gloria – Gotan Project

This track features the voice of legendary football commentator Víctor Hugo Morales who is famous for his passionate commentary on the second goal against England by Maradona in the 1986 World Cup.

On Melancholy Hill – Gorillaz

My favourite track off my favourite album of 2010.

Panic – David Ford

Sadie, someone who I was working with for a part of last year, introduced me to the album by this artist. This is the track on the album I really like. There is wonderful angry energy at the heart of this song.

I Am Not A Robot – Marina & The Diamonds

F**k You – Cee Lo Green

Great sweary fun. “I guess he’s an X-Box and I’m more Atari”

Hard Times – John Legend & The Roots

How do you survive a recession? You release the funk.

Lately (Sunship Remix) – Macy Gray

Lost Where I Belong – Andreya Triana

Mystic Voyage – Buddy Sativa

My most played jazz track of 2010.

Little Wing – Corinne Bailey Rae (iTunes)

A cover of a Jimi Hendrix song.

Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) – Laura Marling

Moving and evocative. This is simply beautiful.

Note that the song links go through to Amazon. I am experimenting with using their affiliate programme.

Eyewitness report of today’s EDL rally in Luton

Today hasn’t been a particularly pleasant one. It is not a nice thing to feel uncomfortable walking around your own home town, which is how I felt today. As I write this up I am feeling a little drained and unsettled.

I chose to go into the town centre today to see the rally by the English Defence League and the counter demonstration by Unite Against Fascism. As a local councillor I felt that I should be a witness to the day’s events.

I got to Luton station at about 2.30 and found myself amongst EDL supporters who were already heading back from their rally in St George’s Square. I had failed to appreciate how tightly locked down the town centre would be so found my movements very restricted. Looking for a way through, the police cordon funnelled me down to the Square but all exits were blocked off. The end of George Street leading into the Square looked like a fortress with huge grey barriers in place. So I had to double back and ended up finding my way out through the car park where the EDL supporters coaches were parked.

The crowd were much as you would expect. Although some appeared to have decided to come in fancy dress. It was also apparent that the vast majority of those from the EDL were from outside Luton. As political rallies go what was happening in the square wasn’t that impressive. There were some people making speeches, but it did look like many attending were not particularly interested.

In one of those bizarre coincidences, on the way out I met a police officer who I had gone to school with. I hope he didn’t get the wrong idea as I didn’t get a chance to explain why I was there!

I then did a long circuit round to the top end of Park Street to have a look at the UAF demonstration. This sounded more impressive and lively, but I couldn’t see what was going on through the forest of police. It did appear that the UAF demo was being more tightly contained than the EDL one was.

I then had to make another circuit round to get access to the Town Hall. The Mayor, the council leader and a few other councillors and politicians were there monitoring the situation. It was a chance to catch up on the events of the day from their perspective. It also meant that I could have a cup of tea and wait for things to die down before heading home. When I left at about 4.30 the EDL had left the Square and the UAF demonstration was being dispersed by the police. Things seemed calm. There was still a gathering of residents in the Bury Park area with a large police presence keeping an eye on it. But it was peaceful.

In all the police estimate was about 1,500 EDL demonstrators and 1,000 at the UAF demo. To my untrained eye that sounds about right.  As political events this makes them I think something of a damp squib. But in terms of impact on the town it has been huge.

The BBC report on today’s events is here and Bedfordshire Police have issued an update which you can find here.

The tactic used to deal with these events was to use an overwhelming police presence and physical barriers to control the two rival groups and so squeeze out any chance of trouble. This has worked and the day has passed off without any significant incidents. So it was the right choice. The police behaved with great professionalism and all those I spoke to were friendly.Yet the only word I can use to describe the nature of the atmosphere in the town centre is oppressive.

The inevitable conclusion is that the actions of a small totally unrepresentative extremist group has been allowed to turn Luton town centre into a no go area for Luton people. The EDL have today disrupted the lives of thousands of people, restricted their liberty, and caused hundreds of thousands of pounds of public expense.

This Englishman doesn’t need defending from my Muslim friends and neighbours. But in the future I would like my town to be defended from groups like the EDL.

BBC axes Electric Proms

The BBC announced a number of changes to music radio yesterday. The most high profile being Jo Whiley’s move from Radio 1 to Radio 2. However, the one that has disappointed me is the announcement that they will be ending their concert series the Electric Proms.

I am not altogether surprised. Last years concerts were limited to only three, admittedly big name, acts. So I did wonder whether the writing was on the wall. Still over the last few years this mix of big name and new acts and surprising collaborations has been one of my musical highlights. So I am disappointed that they will be ending for what seems to be budgetary reasons.

Here are a few highlights:

2nd update on the EDL rally in Luton planned for the 5th February

It is now less than a week until the rally planned by the English Defence League in Luton for the 5th February 2011.

I’ve been blogging about this unwelcome event, which is causing anxiety within Luton’s communities and significant public expense, because I feel it is important that correct information about what is happening is distributed as widely as possible. The Bedfordshire Police have now issued a statement about what is being arranged for Saturday so I thought I would follow up with a second update.

EDL protest

The English Defence League will be meeting in High Town, at the junction of Midland Road and High Town Road from about 10am on Saturday morning. At around 1pm they will then walk to St George’s Square for a rally.

Counter demonstration

The campaign group Unite Against Fascism (UAF) are coordinating a counter demonstration and are encouraging activists from across the country to attend. This demonstration is to be held in Park Square from 12.00pm onwards.

They are unhappy that they haven’t been allocated St George’s Square, but seem to have accepted Park Square as an alternative.

Disruption to Luton residents

While many business and services in Luton town centre will be trying to open as normal, there is no doubt that these events will be very disruptive for Luton people going about their usual routines. Both groups of protesters will be travelling to and from the town centre, there will be a very large police presence, and some roads will be closed.

People shouldn’t be put off coming in the town centre if you have things you need to do. But, be prepared for disruption, and if you decide to make alternative plans for Saturday I think that would be understandable.

Obviously, the police have had a difficult job negotiating with the different groups. I know many will be unhappy that the EDL have been allowed to use St George’s Square. However, it looks like the idea that the EDL would march down from Farley has been, happily, shelved.

  • Full details from Bedfordshire Police can be found on their website.

Other info

A further public meeting for residents will be held on Wednesday, February 2, at Bury Park Community Centre, from 6pm.

I’ve been told that Luton Central Library will be closed on the day.

As reported in the local press the police authority have issued a statement giving their backing to the way the Bedfordshire Police are handling the event.

Text messsage service

Finally, here are details of a new text message service from Bedfordshire Police which should keep you up-to-date with news and information relating to the EDL protest:

“Simply text the word POLICE to 88020 and we’ll send you details of road closures and community information as well as regular news updates leading up to and on the day.”