Camden one year on, and thoughts for the future

I wrote in December about Camden’s financial challenge and the steps Camden Labour was taking to mitigate them and develop proposals for the future. 

Now one full year in, it’s clear that a position of outright opposition to government cuts is untenable given that the cuts are expected to go on for six successive years – Camden Labour must (and has) done two key things: first, it has responded appropriately to taxpayers’ demands that the council make administration savings; second, it has sought to defend universal provision.

Here’s our work in progress:

Ended the unpopular auctioning of council homes which had resulted in public property being ‘flipped’ by private developers.

Revealed all payment to suppliers over £500.  In July 2010 Camden was one of the first (and largest) councils in the country to show what we spend, online.  Residents can see how much money we spend on suppliers and challenge us on value for money.

Published Chief Officer Pay and reward schemes for the first time.  Unlike the former Tory-Lib dem administration, senior officer pay has been put online, so every citizen can see the pay and reward of Camden’s top public servants.

Reduced senior officer costs and numbers.  Camden senior pay will be negotiated down to reflect everyone rowing together against the cuts.  Reward packages will be reduced by 17%.  The number of senior officers will also be reduced in the short term, with further plans to bring this down.  In all the council will reduce its payroll by 1000 staff in the next 3 years.

Set the outlines for a 3 year budget strategy.  When most councils had only stuck (publicly at least) to one or two year plans.  This enables us to better plan savings, and at least cushioning the blow on service users in those services we have to close – e.g. new arrangements for play service coming in 2012, not April 2011.

Created a Camden People’s Fund.  Money from in-year underspends to ease further ease the transition of some services, already being used to Netherwood Older people Centre. 

Made £23m administrative savings out of a year 1 £35m cuts pressure.  Administrative posts  have been cut by up to 40% in some departments.  More services have been brought online to reduce internal costs between departments and the communications budget has been reduced by over 25%.   

Protected children’s services from the brunt of the cuts.  Camden’s £30m a year children’s services budget is the largest in London and funds many services few other councils provide.  While other departments had to cut budgets by up to 20% of more, children’s budgets were only reduced 10%.  Camden now retains a high number of children’s centres (15), compared to Conservative-run boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham which have reduced theirs to 5.  These focus only on the poorest, while Camden still provides universal care.

Created the Community Investment Programme, a £100m ‘Plan b’ to modernise our schools following the unfair decision by the new government to withdraw Building Schools for the Future money in July 2010.  Camden schools will now be able to support at least some of their modernisation and repair plans through this cash injection from the sale and reinvestment of council assets. 

Established the Camden Education Commission, a radical move to plan how we save and nurture the best out of Camden’s schools in the face of massive government change. 

Libraries – despite what detractors say Camden will remain a safe home for libraries.  Despite £2m cuts to the library service, Camden will retain one of the highest funded library services in London.  After conducting the biggest consultation exercise in Camden’s history, we will work up plans to ensure that library closures are as remote as possible while we also modernise the service to meet changing needs of Camden residents – and the challenge of change in content industries.  Our Community Investment Programme and King’s Cross development will also mean the wholesale modernisation and rebuilding of two libraries.

Saved future capital costs by investing in a new council office in King’s Cross.  Taxpayers’ liability for future repair costs for old council buildings will be reduced and money saved through the building of a new administrative centre in the King’s Cross.  The new centre will mean that costly older buildings can be closed and sold, and more services digitised.  the new building makes good the wins from developers we achieved in 2006 when negotiating King’s Cross. 

Workforce rights are also important to us.  We are on the verge of agreeing a package of more favourable terms and conditions for outsourced workers, to ensure that where we are forced to outsource, we do so on the understanding that workers will have decent workplace rights.      

Where do we go next?  In July Camden will be developing it’s next Medium Term Financial Strategy – a moment when Labour can look again at its economic strategy for the area, and the future of our services in the face of very heavy budgetary pressures.

Here are some big questions:

– How will Coalition government plans to force council to outsource impact on what we do, and what residents expect us to do?  Can we retain the best of Camden’s active public service model in the face of the Tory idea of ‘hand’s off’ / sink or swim local government?

– Digitising services – can we eradicate digital exclusion in the borough and help people get the most out of a transformed ‘virtual council’?

– How do we get real savings out of shared services?  What does that mean for our workforce?  Can we maintain our public service ethos and resist the demand by the Coalition to outsource?

– Securing and celebrating wins from King’s Cross (rather than continuing to deny them) and, given the £3.4bn asset base Camden has, really looking at the role of regeneration in achieving community benefits and our political aims – preserving Camden’s social mix.

To answer all of these questions there will need to be more of a shift in local Labour thinking – from councillors, MPs, the party and our community activist base – away from the (often internal) opposition politics of the past and towards the consideration of more long-term, and strategic thinking on policy.

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About Theo Blackwell

Camden Labour councillor, Cabinet memebr for Finance, moderate, anti-contrarian.
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