By John Healey
After a visit to Hammersmith and Fulham yesterday, I returned to my office and caught Theo Blackwell’s post. He’s absolutely right that Cameron and Co must be made to answer for the actions of his Conservative Councils.
In 2007, Cameron told Tory Councillors:
‘You demonstrate Conservative government – your values, your achievements, represent our party in action.’
For once I think Cameron’s right. The actions of local Tories show exactly what a Tory government will be like – and it isn’t a pretty sight.
During the downturn the dividing lines between the Tories and us at a local level have become ever clearer. Labour authorities are keeping tax down at the same time as investing in and improving front-line services. The Tories are slashing services to keep tax down. At this time people need excellent public services and will come to rely on them more. I believe that authorities that are cutting services now are as irresponsible and reckless as those who are keeping council tax too high.
Yesterday I was treated to an impressive sales pitch by Hammersmith and Fulham’s Tory hierarchy in the Town Hall. But what I heard in the Town Hall was only half the story – Labour Leader Steve Cowan has the blow-by-blow account of all the lost services and facilities, that fewer people hear about. For a morning I dipped my toe into the cold waters of service cutting conservatism.
I stopped by Castle Youth Centre, or rather the site where it used to be. It’s a really impressive building, but it’s boarded up, closed and sold off to property developers. Nothing has been put in its place for the 70 young people who used it or the 45 parents who used its childcare facilities.
I dropped in on a birthday party in a sheltered accommodation centre and heard the worries and fears the residents had about losing their on-site warden and other services they rely on for their security and wellbeing.
I went past Hurlingham Park, where there did seem to be some investment taking place. It wasn’t to upgrade the athletics facilities though. It was in fact, preparations for a polo tournament in June, which means reduced access for months for local residents. Renewing the sports facilities there might instead have given the young people that have lost their youth centre more things to do. Listen here to a top Tory Councillor describing how he’s ‘bringing polo back into the inner cities’.
Labour councils are responding differently. When I visited three East London Labour Councils last week, I discovered all three are freezing council tax to help families through the downturn. But that did not mean attacks on front line services. I saw quite the opposite.
In Newham, Mayor Sir Robin Wales is investing in greater employment support. In Greenwich, they’re building two further major leisure and learning centres, to join the excellent Eltham Centre that Council Leader Chris Roberts showed me around. In Hackney, they’re extended free swimming to all under 18s and over 60s and this is their 4th council tax freeze in a row which means Mayor Jules Pipe will have saved the average resident £256.
On the frontline of local government Labour authorities are tackling the harder task, of keeping their tax bills low, while keeping up the services that people rely on. The Tories, like in Hammersmith and Fulham, have reverted to type, cutting public services and putting tax cuts before the wider interests of the community.
We should use every means we have to expose this and I think Labour opposition councillors have a really important role in forging this debate. I hope Labour councillors will publicise more the actions of Tory groups, to show that we don’t need to guess what a Tory government might look like. As David Cameron says, Tory councils already show the Conservative Party in action.